The election that was supposed to open a bright future for Afghanistan threatened to end in chaos and farce yesterday, as 15 of the 18 presidential candidates called for voting to be stopped, alleging massive vote fraud in favour of President Hamid Karzai.
The election President George Bush was holding up as a success story and a model for Iraq may have backfired.
The opposition candidates' central allegations were that the ink used to mark the fingers of those who voted and prevent people from voting twice washed off easily; that 100,000 fraudulent voter registration cards had been issued; that foreign citizens had been given fraudulent registration cards and were voting; that in one village, police had ordered people to vote for Mr Karzai; and that in some polling stations voters' registration cards were stamped but they were not allowed to vote.
The Afghan authorities refused to call a halt to voting, and instead kept the polls open for an extra two hours in the evening because of the sheer numbers wanting to vote. Afghans turned out in huge numbers, and many were furious at the boycott from opposition candidates, saying they were trying to undermine the elections because Mr Karzai was clearly winning.
Of the allegations, the claim that the ink used to mark voters' fingers was rubbing off was true. The Independent on Sunday saw this at polling stations in Kapisa province, north of Kabul. It appeared that election officials were using marker pens instead of the special indelible ink they had been issued with - but it was not clear whether that was a deliberate abuse or simply confusion.
It was not possible to verify the other claims by the opposition candidates, and there were doubts over some. One candidate claimed no one was voting in Kunduz; an Afghan journalist interrupted him to say he had phoned colleagues in the city and voting was under way. But we saw several clearly under-age voters taking part in the poll at Karatas village. When challenged on this, a local official admitted: "The schools have been issuing registration cards to kids who are bright. My own son has one and he is 16."
But we witnessed no sign of any voter intimidation. On more than one occasion, we saw elderly voters with poor eyesight asking officials to tell them which candidate was which, and officials refusing.
All but one of the 15 candidates behind the boycott called for yesterday's vote to be declared illegal and for new polls to be held. But there are suspicions the opposition candidates only called for a boycott because they realised they were doing badly against Mr Karzai. Whatever their motives, the damage had been done yesterday. This election will be tainted with the accusations of vote fraud.
The truth is that President Karzai and his American backers left themselves open to this by rushing the election against the advice of many who said Afghanistan simply was not ready, that more voter education and better preparation were needed.
There were endless fears that it was Taliban violence that would derail this election, and in Kandahar Afghan security forces said they had discovered a petrol tanker laden with 10,000 gallons of fuel and rigged with anti-tank mines. But it was a problem of a different sort that threatened to wreck yesterday's election in the end.
The sad thing is that Afghans had taken to the election with immense enthusiasm. At one polling station we met Rajab, who claimed to be 109 years old - and he looked every year of it - who had walked two hours through a dust storm to vote. With the huge turnout of voters supporting Mr Karzai, many Afghans were predicting that the opposition candidates could face a backlash if they stick to their allegations.
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