Controversy clouding Afghanistan's historic first presidential election eased Sunday when several major opposition candidates backed off from assertions that voter fraud and errors at polling places had rendered Saturday's vote meaningless and illegitimate.
As thousands of ballot boxes began reaching the capital by donkey, taxi and helicopter to be counted at an army base, Afghan and international officials reiterated their praise for the massive, peaceful demonstration of civic will shown by millions of voters, and they played down the complaints of voting irregularities initially made by 15 candidates.
"I'm still celebrating. The Afghan people voted yesterday, in the millions . . . and nothing else matters to me," President Hamid Karzai said. He said his opponents' protests had "hurt my Afghan sentiment" and that the reported problems at polling places, especially the marking of voters' thumbs with washable instead of indelible ink, "did not diminish the value people gave to the vote."
Final results are not expected for several weeks, but scattered exit polls by an American delegation observing the election showed Karzai with a clear majority of votes and his principal challenger, Yonus Qanooni, a former cabinet minister, running a distant second. More than 10.5 million men and women registered to vote, and turnout was described as massive by international election observers and the United Nations.
Officials also emphasized that despite dire predictions of attacks at the polls by the Taliban militia and other armed groups, no serious attacks had occurred Saturday. Afghan and international security forces had discovered and successfully thwarted a number of possible bombing plots and other attacks, officials said.
"Yesterday was a huge defeat for the Taliban," said Lt. Gen. David Barno, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. "The Taliban didn't show."
The Islamic militia had repeatedly threatened to sabotage the elections through bombings and other violent assaults.
Robert Barry, who headed the European delegation monitoring the election, said the opposition candidates' demands to nullify the vote were "unjustified" and would "put into question the expressed will of millions of citizens." He called for a "thorough and transparent investigation" of the polling complaints and said they should be "dealt with as the law provides."
Several of Karzai's key opponents said Sunday that they would accept an impartial investigation into the allegations of multiple voting and ink mix-ups, rather than insisting that the entire election be declared invalid and held again.
Mohammed Mohaqeq, a candidate who is a former planning minister and a leader of the ethnic Hazara minority, said an independent commission should "examine the vote," and that if it is satisfied, then the election "should be ruled legitimate."
Qanooni, a former interior and education minister from the ethnic Tajik minority, also reportedly said he would accept the findings of an independent commission. Election officials said they were in the process of setting up a panel to look into the candidates' complaints.
According to diplomats and other sources, the opposition candidates, who announced they were boycotting the election halfway through the polling Saturday afternoon, began to think twice after realizing the great majority of Afghans were happy about the election and that public opinion was turning against them.
"Some candidates now believe they acted in too much of a rush. Their statements were not well received," said a Western diplomat who met with many of the complaining candidates Saturday night and Sunday. "Most of them are now looking for a way out without losing face."
Nevertheless, several candidates maintained their assertion that the government had abetted multiple voting to increase the margin of victory for Karzai, a politically moderate tribal aristocrat who has governed Afghanistan since being installed by a U.N.-sponsored conference in December 2001.
Karzai is still widely expected to win a five-year term when the votes are tallied, but the eleventh-hour challenge by Qanooni, a respected bureaucrat and former leader of the Islamic guerrilla movement that defended Afghanistan against Soviet troops in the 1980s, raised the possibility of a second-round vote, which would prolong the election process for many weeks.
Homayoun Shah Assefy, a lawyer who ran against Karzai, said he received many calls from polling places in southern and eastern Afghanistan -- strongholds of Karzai's ethnic Pashtun constituency -- complaining of irregularities that favored Karzai.
"This was not an accident. It was pre-organized," Assefy said. "Yesterday I thought this was an historic day, but unfortunately it was a black day for democracy and the future of democracy in Afghanistan." He said that in a certain polling station, one individual voted 100 times.
The turnaround by Mohaqeq, Qanooni and others appeared to be partly the result of intensive lobbying by key international figures here, especially U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. The envoy met with many of the opposition candidates, saying publicly only that he was "here to help."
The Bush administration has made an enormous political and economic investment in Afghanistan's comeback since the U.S.-led military defeat of the Taliban militia in late 2001. The Afghan-born Khalilzad has played a forceful role in pressing for changes to keep the process on track, and his weekend lobbying blitz was no exception.
Western diplomats said Sunday night that Khalilzad had not offered any political deals to the boycotting candidates, but had made clear that they were on the wrong side of Afghan public opinion as well as international wishes. Karzai also said Sunday that he had not engaged in any "horse trading" with his opponents after the vote.