Oct 10, 2004

Afghan election

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- There is no reason to nullify results from Saturday's presidential election in Afghanistan, despite voting irregularities that caused the opposition candidates to demand a new election, according to the head of an international group monitoring the process.

Millions of Afghan voters -- including veiled women -- braved threats of Taliban violence to cram polling stations throughout the ethnically diverse nation, but in some places voting was delayed by the discovery that ink intended to stain voter's hands to prevent multiple voting was easily washed off.

"We concur with the Joint Election Management Board that the candidates' demand to nullify the election is unjustified,"said Ambassador Robert Barry, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's delegation.

He said the conclusion was based on reports from the 40 election monitors in his group, as well as from European Union election experts.

Barry said it was clear from the reports that there were election day irregularities, but Afghanistan law will allow candidates to present any evidence of election fraud.

"The Joint Election Management Board has offered such a process and we urge that it be used," Barry said.

Barry said in addition to the ink problem, monitors saw other problems, including campaign or election officials coaching people on how to vote.

"By and large, I would have to say that the process was extraordinarily orderly, the level of violence was unexpectedly low and the polling station committees, considering the fact that they had never done anything like this before, did, I think, a commendable job," Barry said.

It will be days before any vote counting results are known.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai Saturday said the country's first democratic election was fair and legitimate in spite of complaints from opposition candidates who insist the election was marred by voting irregularities.

In a press conference from the presidential palace, Karzai called on all candidates to respect the wishes of the Afghan people, who endured bad weather in places and long lines to vote democratically for the first time in their lives.

"We should respect the result, whatever that may be, and allow time for the joint commission to study whatever irregularities that there were," Karzai said.

"This is the first time that Afghanistan is going to elections. We all expected problems in the elections. We feared worse than that.

"We feared lots of attacks, lots of sabotage, lots of terrorist activities," Karzai said.

"We are very happy that this went on peacefully, we are very happy that the Afghan people came to participate so massively. That's what I care about -- the will of the Afghan people, and I'm sure the Afghan people have voted freely, without fear, without intimidation."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We congratulate the Afghan people on exercising their political right to choose their country's next leader.

"They have much to be proud of in bringing their country to this point, just three years after the end of a quarter century of war and repression."

Shortly after the polls opened at 7 a.m., 14 of the 15 candidates running against Karzai threw the election into turmoil when they banded together to charge voter fraud.

They vowed not to honor the election results, and to demand another balloting, after protesting problems with the ink used to help ensure fairness.

When election officials realized the ink used to mark the thumb prints of voters to keep them from voting twice could be washed off at some of the polling stations, they paused the balloting, delivered a new supply of ink to the affected stations, and resumed voting.

The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), which includes members of United Nations and the Afghan Elections Commission, promised that all complaints of voter fraud would be investigated.

But the damage was already done: Rumors about the ink spread as thousands of Afghans waited in line -- bringing frustration and distrust to the election process. A young man in Kabul, who cast a ballot before voting stopped, showed CNN how he removed the ink stain from his left thumb with water.

While his voting card was punched, also to prevent fraud, he said many other voters have more than one voter card. "I have cast my vote, but the ink was removable," he said. "This is ridiculous."

Similar problems with the ink were also found in Gardez, the provincial capital of Paktia. Dr. Mohammed Nazar Mohammed Ahmadzai, a pediatrician who had just voted, complained that it was easy to wipe off the ink, a complaint endorsed by several others at the polling center.

Visits to polling stations in Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan and Loghar Province, south of Kabul, indicated that problems with the ink extended far beyond the capital.

At the Kolangar polling center in Loghar election supervisor, Said Narullah, said "this ink can be easily removed."

He demonstrated this by inking a reporter's thumb and wiping off the ink in a couple of seconds.

The president's brother, Qayum Karzai, who leads Afghans for a Civil Society, acknowledged that the ink tainted the election early on, but said most of the problems were cleared up quickly.

He said most important in this day of firsts was that people responded "enthusiastically" to the call for elections and turned out in droves. He said he hoped they would not give up on the process.

"Certainly if there is any abnormality that we have witnessed in Kalahar, it was the markers, the indelible markers that were used to mark the fingers of the voter and also the regular markers on the ballot," he said, adding that to his knowledge, the problem was corrected by 8 a.m.

"But hopefully, we have great expectations that that should not undermine the great enthusiasm of the people of Afghanistan to vote in the first presidential election for the first time in history," he also said.

Opposition candidates were unmoved by promises to investigate possible fraud. Some the opponents are former warlords who issued veiled threats against the sitting president.

"This is completely, completely prearranged fraud," declared Ahmed Shah Ahmadzai, one of the opposition presidential candidates.

If President Karzai refuses, Ahmadzai said, "we will tell them, 'go ahead and run this country.' "

He said all of the opposition candidates have taken an oath not to join a Karzai government unless there is a new vote.

That could hamper the success of a Karzai government if he is reelected.

Among the 16 candidates, President Karzai was favored to win in the voting.

Should the election stand, observers said final results would take up to two weeks to be announced.

Among the violence reported during the elections, in Gardez, where the president had been attacked a month earlier Afghan National Army soldiers patrolled the streets in trucks and arrested three "terrorists" carrying rockets and AK-47s near the University of Paktia.

At noon a missile was launched toward the city's main polling center. The missile fell short by a kilometer, damaging the office of a demining organization. There were no casualties.

The incident did not deter voters who continued to gather by the hundreds to vote.

For the relatively few incidents, the president said he was grateful.

The United Nations -- which said the turnout for the election was high -- said the legitimacy of the election would be determined later through investigation.

Meanwhile, ballots cast Saturday will be taken to a secure place where they will be counted by hand.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Peter Bergen contributed to this report.