Postcard From Kabul
Despite a large voter turnout in Kabul and other major cities, the presidential election in Afghanistan has been a farce. Instead of Taliban violence, the balloting was besieged by a wave of fraud and technical errors. All of Karzai's opponents have denounced the vote as illegitimate, triggering a local and perhaps international credibility crisis for the US-appointed President Hamid Karzai and the international occupation of Afghanistan.
The first bad omen was meteorological--a huge dust storm that some Afghans said was a harbinger of a repressive government. Real trouble began at dawn the next day, October 9, when voters found that the indelible ink used to mark their thumbs and prevent repeat voting was washing off. This, combined with the proliferation of fake voting cards, meant that many people were able to cast votes multiple times.
"I voted three times," said an Afghan solider guarding the presidential palace. "But I can't tell you who I voted for, it's a secret," he added with a straight face.
"I saw a man vote six times, I swear," said a female election observer at a poll across town. A few Western journalists watched as their drivers voted three and four times.
When news of the vanishing ink spread, some polls closed, then reopened. Other polls ran out of ballots, others had no pens for marking the ballots, still others ran out of ballots or space in ballot boxes. On top of that, there were numerous allegations of intimidation. One presidential candidate claimed that his observers saw the police in Kabul telling people to vote for Karzai.
"This is very disappointing," said a woman named Naseema. "We all wanted a fair election and good government."
By noon most of Karzai's opponents or their deputies had gathered at the home of one of the candidates, Sitar Sira. A crush of journalists soon descended. In came UN and EU representatives. The US Ambassador was said to be on his way, but then cancelled. When the candidates emerged after hours in seclusion, Sitar Sira read a statement to the throng of reporters now trampling his muddy garden. He denounced the elections as a fraud and reeled off a list of irregularities. "This is not a legitimate election. We call for a boycott of the election," said Sira. "Karzai should resign."
Other candidates added their own comments. "We should postpone and vote again after Ramadan," said Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai. "We have all sworn not to join Karzai's cabinet. Just let him try and govern," threatened the old mujahedeen veteran.
A serious crisis had emerged.
Despite the candidates' lunchtime call for a boycott, the UN decided to carry on with the vote. Then in the late afternoon, Karzai held a restricted, invitation-only press conference; some of us uninvited journalists talked our way in, through layer upon layer of DynCorp security guards. In the inner sanctum of the classy but slightly run-down Afghan presidential palace, in a small wood-paneled meeting room, we met Karzai. The exchange that followed was at times surreal and sadly comical.
"The commission will look into all of these problems but I am sure the vote was free," said the cloak-draped Karzai after a few jokes and greetings.
"Who is more important, these fifteen candidates, or the millions of people who turned out today to vote?" Karzai said. "Both myself and all these fifteen candidates should respect our people, because in the dust and snow and rain, they waited for hours and hours to vote." At several points, Karzai, sounding increasingly defensive, invoked the image of "a poor hungry, cold Afghan woman waiting to vote. She cannot be intimidated."
When pressed with specific examples of allegations that his campaign used fraud and intimidation, the president grew visibly irritated. "What report? Human Rights Watch? They do not understand Afghan culture. Tribal culture, it is very democratic. Tribal elders cannot be intimidated. They do not know what is really going on."
At other points, Karzai joked about the hostility of the BBC and repeatedly asked for questions from "my friend Ahmed Rashid." The distinguished Pakistani journalist had one query but declined to respond to the president's cajoling.
As polls closed and night fell on Kabul, Afghanistan began a long wait. In the following days and weeks the votes will have to be counted, opening more opportunities for fraud, intimidation and recriminations. And if the opposition candidates, many of whom are old Mujahedeen commanders, really turn their backs on Karzai--who is very likely to win--the situation here could disintegrate radically.