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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 October, 2004, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Will boycott damage the Afghan vote?

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Kabul

Women voters in Shiberghan, north Afghanistan
Women vote in Shiberghan, northern Afghanistan
First things first - Afghanistan's first ever democratic elections were largely peaceful.

This in a country still under the threat of violence from the Taleban, private militias and sparring warlords.

And large numbers of Afghans turned out to cast their ballots including, in many areas, many women.

But a sudden move to boycott the polls by all the candidates opposed to President Karzai has threatened to cast its shadow over what has clearly been a remarkable process.

QUICK GUIDE

It followed fairly widespread complaints of voting irregularities - specifically that the indelible ink used to mark voters' fingers and prevent them from casting their vote again could easily be washed off.

Officials from the Joint Electoral Management Body - made up of Afghan and UN officials - were quick to react and pronounce judgement after an investigation.

"The problem is not with the ink itself but its application," said the JEMB's head, Farook Wardak.

But the matter had deeply embarrassed the JEMB and the UN, with many questioning how millions of dollars could be spent on an election yet something as elementary be overlooked.

My BBC colleague and veteran Afghan watcher Lyse Doucet put it succinctly:

"This was an election which was supposed to have been undone by international terrorism.
To be able to cast my vote and participate in the future of my country - this is a dream to be cherished
Abdul Mateen
taxi driver

"Yet it's all come down to a pot of ink."

The controversy has, however, come as a lifeline to the disparate opposition which had made several failed attempts to jointly oppose the president.

They can now question the outcome of the poll, which Mr Karzai is widely expected to win.

It could potentially make the president's attempts to extend his political reach over this deeply divided country that much more difficult.

Democratic spirit

Despite the controversy, reports from the ground by BBC correspondents spread across Afghanistan suggest that the issue has had little impact among voters.
Refugee voters in the Iranian capital, Tehran
Refugee voters in the Iranian capital, Tehran

Many Afghans are keen that the international community appreciate just what a historic day it has been for this country.

"It is amazing, as an Afghan, to see the turnout, see how many people have come out to cast their votes - especially as it was an exercise that was new to them," says Shoaib Sharifi, a senior Afghan journalist.

It's a view that many voters concurred with.

"This is a country that has suffered greatly over the years," said Abdul Mateen, a Pashtun taxi driver, after casting his vote in the city's diplomatic district.

"To be able to cast my vote and participate in the future of my country - this is a dream to be cherished."

Across Kabul, in the Tajik-dominated Karte Parwan district many felt the opposition had done the right thing by boycotting the polls.

But restaurant manager Mohammad Daud, a Panjshiri Tajik, felt the time had come to move on.

"It is time we started thinking as Afghans and do what's best for the country.

"We should stop thinking and acting along ethnic lines. What has happened today is remarkable."

It is still early to determine the impact of the poll boycott on the outcome of these elections and the future of Afghanistan's democratic experiment.

There are some who believe that Saturday's development will mean that President Karzai, who is expected to win, will earn a discredited mandate which in turn will hurt his political strength and ability to extend his influence across the country.

But most people look on the day as an incredibly positive moment for a country that has had so little to celebrate.




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