Afghanistan's first ever national election was in crisis as opposition candidates demanded fresh polls, charging widespread fraud, after eager voters turned out in force for a peaceful vote hoping for an end to decades of conflict.
Long lines of voters queued patiently outside polling stations from the arid streets of the former Taliban regime's southern stronghold of Kandahar to the villages of the northern Hindu Kush mountains.
A voter dips his thumb into purple ink before he casts his ballot at a polling station in Kabul Saturday, Oct. 9, 2004. Afghan opposition candidates have boycotted the elections saying that the ink used in many polling booths to mark those who had voted could be rubbed off allowing multiple vote casting. (AP Photo/Mosadeq Sadeq)
"I came here to elect my president on my own. The election marks the end of warlords and wars in my country," said Hayam Udin, 50, in Kabul, echoing the hopes of countless fellow voters. The feared Taliban attacks never materialised.
But the joyous enthusiasm gave way to confusion as supposedly indelible ink became invisible and voters rubbed it off their fingers, erasing a crucial safeguard against multiple voting.
Opposition candidates cried foul and alleged other cases of fraud, saying people voted several times with multiple cards, polls closed prematurely in areas populated by opposition supporters, and that voters were pressured to choose incumbent President Hamid Karzai.
Even the sole female candidate Masooda Jalal, the only opposition candidate not to join the boycott call, alleged "planned and organised fraud."
The ballot was never going to be perfect among 10.5 million voters in a war-shattered land hit by a Taliban-led insurgency, with infrastructure in tatters, mountain villages so remote that donkeys have to bear ballots, and only 230 foreign observers available for 5,000 polling stations.
Foreign diplomats, US and UN officials, observers and Karzai himself had all cautioned a flawless vote was unlikely, but none expected such concerted repoll calls so soon by 14 candidates. Thirteen of them had never stood any chance of winning.
Election authorities rejected a call by the 14, including Karzai's chief challenger Yunus Qanooni, to halt the ballot. Instead it extended polling by two hours to just after 6:00pm (1330 GMT)
The election was to be a milestone in Afghanistan's road to recovery after a quarter-century of war capped by five years of harsh rule by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban militia, who were ousted by US-led forces three years ago for harbouring Osama bin Laden after the September 11 terror attacks.
The ballot was also a test for US President George W. Bush, who will take his controversial foreign policy to the polls next month.
Bush said the Afghan election was a "really great thing" just three years after the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the Afghans' enthusiasm to vote was an "inspiration" to every one.
In the early hours of polling Karzai, strongly backed and protected by the United States, cast his vote under tight security.
"For the first time we are electing our president so it is not important who wins," he said. "What is important is that Afghanistan is deciding its fate."
Chosen as interim leader by a council of tribal leaders in June 2002, Karzai only managed one campaign rally. His first attempt at rallying the people was aborted by an assassination attempt. His running mate too survived a bid on his life.
Most Afghans were expected to vote along ethnic and tribal lines, giving Karzai a strong chance as he hails from the southern Pashtun majority, an origin shared by the former Taliban rulers.
Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Baluchis make up the rest of the mosaic of Afghanistan's tribes.
Fears were high before the poll that warlords, who still wield power through private armies, would intimidate voters.
The still-undersized Afghan army and police force are inadequate to guard all 5,000 polling booths so militiamen from warlords' armies were deployed in many areas.
Some 27,000 foreign troops from a US-led coalition and NATO were on hand to protect the 10.5 million registered voters.
"This is the most important day in the history of Afghanistan," Haji Abdul Salaam, 55, said in the conservative southern city Kandahar.
Three policemen were reportedly killed when militants attacked a convoy carrying full ballot boxes, a UN official said.
On Friday, the eve of the vote, 25 Taliban militants were killed in a US-led airstrike after they tried to ambush American troops in central Uruzgan province, a provincial official said, and three US-led troops were wounded in a firefight south of Kabul.
© Copyright 2004 AFP