KABUL, Afghanistan, Oct. 9 -- After a relatively peaceful and orderly start, Afghanistan's first presidential election was thrown into chaos Saturday after 15 candidates opposing President Hamid Karzai declared the results invalid, complaining of fraud and improper procedures.
The contretemps threatened to ruin the credibility of a historic election that has cost foreign donors almost $200 million, seen more than 10 million Afghans register to vote and been viewed as a milestone in the country's transformation into a stable, modernizing country after 25 years of war and turmoil.
In the village of Dehnow, an hour south of Kabul, a local election worker marks the thumb of a voter to show that he has voted. Complaints arose after election workers marked voters with regular ink instead of indelible ink.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
The candidates' complaints stood in sharp contrast to the enthusiastic spirit of hundreds of thousands of Afghans who lined up outside village schools and mosques on a chilly, wind-swept morning to cast the first votes of their lives. Whoever won, they told visitors over and over, they hoped the election would bring peace and security.
The national election commission, composed of members from Afghanistan and the United Nations, said Saturday afternoon that it would allow the election to proceed despite the candidates' protests but that it would investigate complaints of irregularities. The polls closed at 6:30 p.m., and ballot-counting was expected to take days because of the remote locations of many polling stations.
"Given the complexities of this electoral process, there have inevitably been some technical problems," said J. Ray Kennedy, an election commission official. But given the large turnout and "peaceful environment" of the vote -- for which the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international groups supplied monitors -- it would be "unjustified" to halt the election and deny many Afghans their fundamental rights, he said.
Since responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States with a military offensive that toppled Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, the Bush administration had eagerly sought elections that would give Afghans a chance to pick their leaders and would be seen as a major U.S. foreign policy success. With U.S. backing, Karzai was named interim president in late 2001 under a U.N.-sponsored democratization process that has already advanced through two national assemblies, a new constitution and voter registration.
Karzai, who has been heavily favored to win a majority of votes, insisted Saturday evening that the election had been "free and fair." He urged all candidates to accept the results and to "respect our people, because in the dust and snow and rain, they waited hours and hours to vote."
But his opponents, a range of ethnic politicians, former officials, tribal leaders and professionals, declared repeatedly during the day that the election should be nullified, suspended and held again, largely because of a widespread mix-up over indelible ink that was supposed to mark voters' thumbs to prevent them from voting more than once.
During a day-long tour of polling sites in three provinces, a Washington Post reporter saw many instances in which poll workers mistakenly inked voters' thumbs with black marking pens intended to be used on ballots instead of the purple indelible ink supplied to prevent fraud.
Voters expressed concern at the ease with which the black ink rubbed off, but no one at a dozen polling stations, including designated agents for various candidates, complained of deliberate fraud.
But in Kabul, opposition candidates met for much of the afternoon at the home of Abdul Sattar Sirat, a former cabinet minister and one of Karzai's challengers. "Any government that comes to power as a result of today's election has no credibility and no validity," Sirat said after the meeting.
The controversy came as a shock to Afghan and international election officials, who had warned of possible attacks at the polls by Taliban guerrillas and other anti-democratic forces, but who never expected the candidates to cast doubt on the process.
There were numerous scattered incidents of violence and anti-election plots reported during the day, but most were in remote provinces. An unprecedented deployment of nearly 100,000 Afghan and foreign security forces sealed off all major roads and guarded most polling centers.
Police said they discovered a fuel tanker truck carrying land mines and explosives in the southern city of Kandahar and arrested three Pakistanis who were in the vehicle. They said the volatile cargo could have been detonated in the city. Interior Ministry officials said they found explosives and other dangerous items in cars throughout Kabul and arrested a group of Taliban members who were holding a clandestine meeting.