Monitors say Afghan poll fair despite ink fiasco


Afghanistan's historic presidential vote, which was held with great enthusiasm but ended in turmoil after most candidates announced a boycott, was mostly fair, independent observers have said.

President Hamid Karzai, the favourite to win, rejected calls from his rivals for fresh voting.

From the southern plains to the Hindu Kush mountains and northern steppes of the impoverished Islamic nation, millions turned out yesterday to elect their leader for the first time, despite threats by Taliban fighters to sabotage the election.

Attacks on the vote did not materialise, but up to 40 people were killed in clashes, including 24 in a US bombing raid.

But midway through the day, all 15 rivals of US-backed Mr Karzai said they were boycotting the poll because a system to prevent voting fraud had failed. Many demanded a new vote.

At issue was indelible ink put on the finger of everyone who voted to stop them voting again. But some election workers used the wrong pen to mark voters, and the ordinary marker ink was quickly washed off.

And with questions over the late and rapid registration of 10.5 million voter cards in a population of about 28 million, there were accusations of illegal multiple voting.

The largest group of independent election observers, the Free and Fair Election Foundations of Afghanistan, made up of 13 Afghan non-governmental organisations, said the vote was fair.

"The large participation of Afghans is an encouraging sign of people's participation in the democratic process," it said.

"While the reasons for the incorrectly applied indelible ink remain to be seen, a fairly democratic environment has generally been observed in the overall majority of polling centres."

Mr Abdul Satar Serat, one of Karzai's rivals and a spokesman for others, condemned the vote as illegal and against democracy.

"The result that comes out of this election will be an illegal result," he said.

Karzai said his rivals should respect the will of the people.

"I would advise my fellow countrymen, the 15 other candidates, that we must all respect the fact that millions of Afghans came out on foot, in rain and snow and dust and waited for hours to vote," he said.

The Joint Election Management Body of UN and Afghan experts said the allegations of irregularities were serious and would be investigated. But it said counting, likely to begin tomorrow after ballot boxes are collected today, would go ahead.