The worst-kept secret in the village of Dehnow is that everyone is voting for Hamid Karzai. Of course, when asked who they want to win yesterday's elections for the president of Afghanistan, the villagers have a way of laughing, like some women laugh when you ask them their age. Or they answer by suggesting that they have heard, but can't really be sure about it, that maybe there are some people who think perhaps they will vote for Hamid Karzai.

"Sometimes they say, 'Karzai is a nice man,' " said Aghagul, 50, on Friday, the eve of the elections. He wasn't committing to anything personally.

But walk down the main street of this bustling village south of Kabul, past the small shops near the main road, along the stream that feeds the small fields that provide much of the village's livelihood, out into the open desert where an arid wind whips the tattered flags that fly over old graves, and you meet Najibullah. His home is a large, square compound that looks like a medieval fortress. Behind these high, thick, sand-colored walls live extended families, the women kept out of view and everyone protected, once the metal doors shut, from the dangers of the night.

Najibullah, 28, was busy with preparations for his nephew's upcoming wedding, and it seems he hadn't gotten the word about how one talks about these first elections in Afghanistan.

"Karzai," he said, when asked whom he thinks people will vote for. But he was waiting to get word from the leader of the village council. Later on election eve, he said, an announcement from the loud speakers of the nearby mosque would summon the men to confer with Dr. Ziaulhaq. And then they'd make their final decision.

"He is the elder of this village," said Najibullah. "Everyone will obey him, what he decides."

Democracy, if you can call it that, collides in strange ways with the tribal system of Afghan village life. Dehnow is a mostly Pashtun village, and Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun. Even without the instruction of the leader of the village council, Dehnow would probably come out for Karzai. In Dehnow, like many villages across this remote and isolated country, decisions are made collectively, bubbling up from the 3,000 families that live here, and trickling down from the elders who are village council members.

As the voting began, it became clear that for many, especially the least educated, simply making their own decisions about political matters is a new and uncertain thing. When handed a ballot, with pictures and symbols to help identify the candidates, an elderly man looked at the long, 18-name list with confusion. So he asked the advice of the polling station staff and was told make a mark here, in this box. The one next to Karzai's name. It wasn't clear how often this happened throughout the day.

There were several local election monitors inside the brick courtyard where the men of Dehnow voted yesterday, but there didn't seem to be any international ones. Representatives of Karzai's campaign were the most numerous, but others -- from the campaigns of Yonus Qanooni, the likely second-place finisher, and two lesser candidates -- were present as well. In the morning, at least, things were running smoothly inside the polling station -- no pushing, no shoving, no arguments -- but around the edges there were problems.

The villagers, like people all across Afghanistan, were talking about the dye used to mark their thumbs to prevent double voting. Although they hadn't yet heard that all 15 of the remaining candidates opposing Karzai would protest the election because of the mix-up over the dye, they, too, worried that it was easily washed off. And there were other small issues, mostly matters of confusion: Maqbool Ahmad, 38, said he came from Kabul as a monitor -- he showed his official card -- but was told they already had enough monitors, and he was in the wrong place. They didn't let him into the voting area until an hour and half after the polls opened at 7 a.m.

Security chief Mohammad Hashim, 43, had more ominous news, though he wasn't broadcasting it. At 9 p.m. Friday, he said, national intelligence officers had found 12 Sakr rockets in the mountains near Dehnow. They were aimed at the main polling station, the local district office and the police station. And the police commander in Dehnow, Qudratullah, confirmed that small cells of four to six Taliban were still active in the area and that a cache of their weapons had been found a few days earlier.

None of this deterred the town's voters. In Kabul, where a mix of fog and fine dust blotted out the sun, the streets were almost deserted; old-timers said it was eerily reminiscent of the Taliban days when the only people out and about were men with big guns. The same gritty, cold haze covered Dehnow, an hour to the south, but everyone seemed to have declared the day a holiday. Women in blue burkas were driven to the women's polling place -- no men allowed -- and children played in the streets.

Shortly after the polls opened, a caravan of Kuchi -- an Afghan nomadic people -- passed down the main street with their camels and donkeys and big, shaggy dogs. The Kuchi, with their jewelry and gaily colored clothes, are a burst of technicolor in this brown and gray place, but they are reclusive and reticent.

"No," shouted an old man bringing up the rear of their train when asked if they had voted. "We do not have the cards, we are not voting, we are not interested." And so they passed on through the village to the open plains.

Americans want to know if what happened here yesterday is really democracy, if the elections were fair and free and if women, who are all but invisible in villages like these, had a proper chance to exercise their new constitutional right to vote. With little more than three weeks between the elections in Afghanistan and the Nov. 2 elections in the United States, the success or failure of the former could influence American voters assessing the foreign policy of President Bush.

If only democracy were simple. If only Afghanistan were simple. It will take days, or weeks, to know the results of this election, and with a major challenge to its legitimacy from Karzai's opponents, the whole thing could be for naught. Even if the election is deemed legitimate, it's possible that Karzai, the favorite of the American government, will have to run against Qanooni -- a Tajik closely associated with the mujahedin who fought against the Soviet occupation -- in a runoff election. There are also whole provinces of Afghanistan where security is so poor, and hostility to anything associated with the American and international forces here is so high, that adequate independent oversight is almost impossible.

If you ask the people here, they are not concerned too much about the process. There was confusion yesterday, and some mistakes, but even Maqbool Ahmad, the monitor refused access at first, doesn't think his absence compromised the process.

"Unfortunately, there are still many people who don't know how to vote," he said, shaking his head. But he seemed mostly peeved about his poor treatment.

Here in Karzai country, concerns about a process that favors the incumbent are minimal. But even before the ink mix-up yesterday, there was a widespread and giddy sense that these elections were historic and a step on the path to peace and prosperity. Afghans are endearingly defensive about the virtues of the villages and provinces whence they come. People who are mildly concerned about the vote in other provinces assured you that all was fine in theirs.

If the immediate controversies of this election can be put to rest -- the ink problem, concerns about women's access and freedom to vote, and a resentment of what many of Karzai's opponents deem his preferential treatment by the United States -- there would still be larger, philosophical issues about Afghan democracy. Any politician who wants you to believe that the Americans have brought Afghans the gift of democracy seriously underestimates the Afghan power of adaptation. What seems to have emerged, in villages like Dehnow, is a way of using voting to confirm what is a largely unelected, but (for men, at least) highly representative power structure. Men go to mosques where they meet village council members, who listen and advise the chief of the village council, who in turn meets with others like himself on a local and provincial level.

At the village level, where things are homogenous, this is a process that favors consensus, a Republic of the Like-minded, and one can hear it influence everything right down to grammar. Ask someone why he might vote for Karzai and he speaks instead in collective terms: "People are happy with the government of Karzai." People say he is a nice man.

Or as Ziaulhaq, the head of the Dehnow village council put it, when asked Friday who his village would vote for, "Of course the people will vote for a good Muslim, who will serve the people, and who is Afghan."

It's very likely, but one can't be entirely sure, that he meant Hamid Karzai.

A caravan of Kuchi nomads -- who shun voting -- passes through Dehnow on Election Day, a historic occasion in the troubled nation. Below, women line up to vote separately from men.Mohammed Malik was the first in line to vote when the polls opened in Dehnow. Above, election officials get ready to open a polling station in the village of Dehnow. Left, Mina Mehiabi, 10, helps set up a separate station for women. Below, an official instructs villagers confused by voting procedures and election workers in Kabul, right, compare the number of votes cast to the number of registration cards.