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Afghans Head to Polls in Landmark Presidential Vote  - 2004-10-09


Polls have opened in Afghanistan, where millions of citizens are lining up to vote in the country's first presidential election. The Afghan presidential ballot offers voters a choice of 18 candidates - listed by name, photo and symbol - though several pulled out of the race after the ballots were printed.

Among the contenders are current transitional President Hamid Karzai and Younus Qanooni, a leader from the alliance of militias which joined U.S. forces in ousting the previous Taleban regime three years ago.

Tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign workers have spent months preparing for the election. Polling centers have been set up across the country, including in places so remote that donkeys will be used to carry ballot boxes in and out. Afghan and foreign security forces will try to prevent any violence by Taleban supporters or other groups.

About 5,000 local observers and 500 international observers will watch over the voting, both in Afghanistan and in Afghan refugee communities in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

Some say the number of observers is worryingly low.

Sam Zarifi, deputy director for Asia at the U.S. advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said "compared with what happened in Cambodia, in the Balkans, in [East] Timor, there are very, very few international observers."

He called this a major shortcoming and a sign that Afghan and international election organizers have not done enough preparation. "Our hope is that the elections will be a fair forum for the Afghan people, but frankly, we'll never know because there aren't independent monitors who can tell us exactly how the elections went," he said.

Even more troubling, he says, is that the 5,500 monitors will be dwarfed by 70,000 political party agents and candidate representatives who have registered to observe the voting. "They are untrained. They are unvetted. They are by and large unknown to anyone. And there is every reason to fear that they may try to engage in intimidating voters inside the polling stations," he said.

Mr. Zarifi said the observer problem does not guarantee a flawed election, but he criticizes the organizers and the international community in particular for not paying enough attention to this historic vote.

More than 10 million voter registration cards have been handed out for the event, though the number of votes is expected to be less, in part because a significant number of people are believed to have registered more than once.

Indelible ink will be applied to voters' fingers to prevent any one from casting more than one ballot.