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Cast of Thousands Ready for Afghan Election - 2004-10-06

The people of Afghanistan will vote Saturday in their first direct presidential elections. As the 18 candidates vie for support, a team of thousands is racing the clock to get everything ready for the historic vote.

The $200-million budget for Afghanistan's election includes some unusual expenses, such as comic books and donkey food.

The illustrated comics are for the millions of illiterate voters, to help explain how the election process works.

The food is for three hundred donkeys that will carry ballots to and from remote villages.

Siat Mohammad Azam is the spokesman for the Joint Election Management Body, the agency organizing the balloting. He promises that everything will be ready for the voters. "You know, this is a huge task, full of challenges and difficulties and complications but at end of the day, people are very excited," he said.

It has been a monumental effort. The United Nations hired 115,000 local election workers and has helped register more than 10 million voters in less than year.

The effort, at least according to some critics, has almost been too successful: evidence suggests many people are collecting multiple voting cards.

In some places, more than twice as many cards have been distributed than there are eligible voters.

Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan also will be able to vote. Greg Bearup, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, says 20,000 people worked overtime to register more than one million refugees.

"They are amazingly enthusiastic, they want to vote, that's what they're all saying, that they hope this is the turning point for their country and they want to participate," he said.

But it has not been easy. Convincing women to participate has been especially difficult. Mr. Bearup says many communities traditionally have only allowed men to take part in politics.

"We put a lot of effort in to trying to get women to vote and more women are coming out in the later days but we're dealing with very conservative Afghan communities who don't want their women to vote, I suppose," he said.

Mr. Bearup says only about 40 percent of the final vote will come from women, a good start, but leaving room for improvement.

Security has been a constant concern for the election workers. The Taleban, which controlled Afghanistan until the U.S.-led war threw them out of power in 2001, has vowed to disrupt the vote.

More than a dozen election workers have been killed and 30 others injured during the nine-month voter registration drive.

Large portions of south and southeastern Afghanistan were considered too dangerous for registration drives. Up to a half a million people in those areas may not be able to vote as a result.

But Afghanistan and its international supporters such as Britain and the United States insist the election will be held on time.

Sait Azam with the Joint Election Management Body says security threats will not stop the election.

"It has always been a concern, it has always been a challenge but, meanwhile, you know all the military forces - the Afghan national army, the Afghan national police, the coalition force - they are coordinating, so all the preparation has been made," he said.

There are 5,000 polling sites to accommodate the voters, with 22,000 polling booths.

Once voting is done, ballot boxes will be taken to counting centers around the country.

Some will be taken by truck; helicopters will fly overhead to make sure nobody tries to - literally - steal the vote.

Other ballot boxes will be strapped to the backs of those donkeys who will carry them - carefully - down from remote mountain villages. In some cases the journey may take well over a week.

Election monitors say some cheating is expected and irregularities almost guaranteed. But in the end, the result will, for the first time, reflect the common will of the Afghan people.

A final count should be announced within two or three weeks of the election.

However, if no candidate captures more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off election will be held within two weeks. That means new ballots will have to be distributed and the donkeys will go back work.