KABOL, 9 Oct. (IPS) Elections in Afghanistan, the first more or less free and democratic exercise ever held in this central Asian nation, ended amid controversy over an ink, supposed to be indelible used to mark voters fingers to prevent fraud but found that it could be washed easily, leading to fears of manipulations.
More than 10.5 million Afghanis, including for the first time in the history of the Muslims dominated country over 4 million women went to some 22,000 polling stations -- women voted at separate booths from the men, in keeping with this nation's conservative Islamic leaning -- across the county to elect their president, with Mr. Hamed Karzai, the incumbent President-Prime Minister installed two years ago by the West and backed by the United States given by most analysts as the favourite.
Fourteen candidates called for the vote to be halted because of irregularities.
However, the process, considered by most observers as “historic” without the violence predicted by the remnants of the Taleban and other islamist groups opposed to free elections was suspended in some polling stations temporarily due to an ink supposed to be indelible but denounced by the majority of the candidates as being “washable”.
Fourteen candidates out of the 15 fighting for the top job, including Mr. Yunes Qanooni, a Tajik considered as the top rival to Mr. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtoun, called for the vote to be halted because of irregularities.
"To prevent fraud in the process of the election, Qanooni wants the election immediately stopped", the French news agency AFO quoted one Qanooni’s aide as having said.
Thirteen other candidates also called for the election to be halted, saying it was not legitimate, candidate Abdul Satar Sirat said, claiming to speak on behalf of the others.
"We 14 candidates announce that the election should be stopped immediately", he told reporters after a meeting at his house in Kabol, adding that they would not recognize the outcome as valid.
"Today's election is not a legitimate election. We are not a part of today's election", Mr. Serat said after a meeting of most of the 15 candidates and the representatives of the others.
Flanked by all those who attended the meeting, Serat accused election authorities of favouring the US-backed Karzai and not being able to prevent multiple voting.
But officials minimised the problem, blaming some electoral officials for using the wrong pen to mark voters' fingers with ink, which was found to wash off easily.
“Halting the vote at this time is unjustified and would deny these individuals the right to vote", said election official Ray Kennedy.
Mr. Farooq Wardak, an official of the Joint Election Monitoring Board said: "We would not simply stop the elections as they ask but we do our assessments and the JEMB will decide either to stop or not stop", he said.
Mrs Jalal, the lone female candidate told the American news agency Associated Press: "The ink that is being used can be rubbed off in a minute. Voters can vote 10 times".
"It is not only the ink issue but there are several other unlawful acts", the aide said.
"For example in the places where there are more Karzai supporters the polling stations are open but where there are more supporters for other candidates the stations are closed with officials saying 'there are no ballot papers, there is no ink", he explained.
Election workers reprimanded several Karzai campaign officials for coming to lobby voters at site, a violation of electoral law.
In his first reaction to the protest, Mr. Karzai, who voted in the presidential palace early morning, ruled out cancellation of the elections, saying that he would respect the outcome of the polling.
Journalists covering the race said as the voting ended, Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born American ambassador was discussing with some of the contesters, including Mr. Qanooni.
Around 800.000 Afghanis living in neighbouring Pakistan and 400.000 in Iran also took part in the exercise.
Contrary to neighbouring Islamic Republic of Iran, where women can vote and also be elected to the Majles, or parliament, but can not become president, Afghanistan’s Islam-based laws allows women running for the presidency, as confirmed by the presence of Mrs. Mas’ouda Jala, a doctor who is among the 15 remaining candidates out of the original eighteen.
Voting was also mired with violence, as election officials reported the arrest of three Pakistanis who planned to detonate an explosive truck in the center of the city on polling day.
"This would have caused hundreds of deaths ... and the electoral process would have been derailed in the area", said Col. Ishaq Paiman, the Defense Ministry deputy spokesman.
A flurry of rockets landed in several cities around the country on Thursday and Friday, including one that hit a parking lot near the U.S. Embassy and another in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
The polling was observed by around 5,000 observers, including local agents from 35 political parties and 600foreign observers.
Former Afghan King, the ageing Mohammad Zaher Shah had called on Afghans to vote freely for their own favourite in the country's upcoming landmark presidential elections.
"I, as the father of the nation request you, dearest, to take part in this historical event and vote for your favourite candidate", he said in a statement on Wednesday, making it clear that his own favourite was Karzai, who bestowed on him the title of “the Father of the nation” after he was picked as Prime Minister by an emergency Loya Jirga, or grand council of tribal leaders in 2001.
Other prominent figures like former Prime Minister Borhanedddin Rabbani, have announced their support for Karzai.
In a recent talk with the Persian-Pashtoun service of the BBC, Mr. Karzai pledged inclusive government if elected, saying he wanted to get away from the coalition-style administration of the last three years which "had not got anywhere".
"I want to build a government which reflects the whole Afghan people", he said.
Bellow is a glossary to the Saturday elections:
CANDIDATES: Originally 18, including interim leader Hamed Karzai, former Interior Minister Yunes Qanooni, Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Mas’ouda Jalal, the only female candidate.
STAKES: The vote is Afghanistan's first-ever direct presidential vote and first national ballot since the fall of the Taleban, the ultra orthodox Muslims who ruled over the country before being booted out on November 2001 by the Americans, imposing strict Islamic laws, forbidding music and television and women from working. They also destroyed a big state of Lord Buddha in the city of Bamiyan. Karzai is hoping a victory will solidify his rule and allow him to take bolder steps to rebuild the country and fight the influence of warlords that still hold sway in much of the countryside.
POLLS OPEN: From 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. (0230 GMT to 1130 GMT) But was extended for another 2 hours due to long queues in some polling stations.
I want to build a government which reflects the whole Afghan people", Karzai pleged.
VOTING CENTRES: 4,807, each with separate polling booths so that men and women may vote apart to respect the country's Islamic customs.
VOTING STATIONS: There are 21,521 stations within the voting centres. Of these 12,354 will be for men, and 9,187 for women.
MONITORS: More than 16,000 domestic observers but only about 225 international monitors will be involved in overseeing the vote to guard against fraud and intimidation _ a turnout which has disappointed the United Nations.
VOTERS: Some 10.5 million people have registered within Afghanistan, about 740,000 in Pakistan, and there are believed to be another 400,000 to 600,000 eligible voters in Iran. 41 percent of those registered in Afghanistan are women, but that ratio is lower among Afghan refugees in Pakistan and in the deeply conservative Pashtoun belt in south-eastern Afghanistan.
POPULATION: There are believed to be about 25 million people in Afghanistan, though there has been no reliable census since decades of ruinous war forced millions to flee. Many have since returned.
RECENT HISTORY; Afghanistan was thrown into a bloody civil war from 1988, after the defeat of the Soviet Union’s mighty Red Army at the hands of the Jihadis, or mujahedeens, with fighters loyal to the then prime minister Golbodin Hekmatyar, a CIA informer belonging to the dominant Pashtoun ethnic, fighting forces of the Tajik warlord Ahmad Shjah Mas’oud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, killed on 9 September 2001 by Arab terrorists sent by Al-Qa’eda’s Saudi leader Ossama Ben Laden, 2 days before attacking targets in New York and Washington.
On 1996, the Taleban, supported by Pakistan and a population tired of 20 years of unabated civil war and Soviet occupation, enter Kabol, led by Mollah Mohammad Omar.
RESULTS: Election officials say it will take two weeks to count the vote because of the remote terrain of much of Afghanistan and a lack of experience with democratic votes. They hope to have partial results sooner, but say they don't know when a winner will be announced.
In separate announcements on the final day of the presidential campaign Wednesday, Syed Ishaq Gilani and Abdul Hasseb Aryan said they were dropping out of the race. ENDS AFGHAN ELECTIONS 91004