KABUL, Afghanistan – Thousands of election workers began the long process of tallying the results of Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election on Sunday, even as controversy swirled over the vote's legitimacy.
What was supposed to be a historic day in the war-ravaged nation turned sour Saturday when all 15 challengers to interim President Hamid Karzai (search) withdrew in the middle of voting, accusing the government and the United Nations of fraud and incompetence because of faulty ink used to mark voters' thumbs.
On Sunday, at least one of those candidates appeared to pull back a bit, saying he wanted a commission to rule on whether the election was fair, and indicated he would accept its decision.
Karzai characterized his country's presidential election as "a massive day of success" for the nation. He told BBC TV that he'll be "very happy" if he wins, but said it's still "a victory for the Afghan people" even if he loses.
Karzai said the controversy over the vote's legitimacy can't ruin that.
A joint U.N.-Afghan panel overseeing the election said it will rule later on the vote's legitimacy.
Millions flocked to polling stations set up in remote mountain hamlets, dusty refugee camps and in thousands of bullet-pocked schools and hospitals in every corner of the nation. Electoral officials said turnout appeared to be high — a victory itself in a nation with no experience at direct elections.
On Sunday, ballots were being brought to eight counting centers around the country, and election workers were beginning the tally. Officials say very initial results could come out late Sunday or early Monday, but that nothing approaching a full count is likely for more than two weeks.
"I don't think we will see a trend as to who is leading for about a week," said electoral spokesman Aykut Tavsel.
In Mazar-e-Sharif (search), election officials said Sunday they had not yet received the ballots from five northern provinces that are supposed to be flowing in. They said it could take until Tuesday or Wednesday for the ballots to arrive and counting to begin in earnest.
Threats by the Taliban to disrupt the vote never materialized. Though the rebels did manage a smattering of deadly assaults around the country, they themselves took the biggest hit, losing 25 men in a clash with U.S. and Afghan forces in the south.
U.S. Commander Gen. David Barno told The Associated Press in a phone interview that the election could mark the death knell for the rebels.
"The Taliban basically didn't show, they had very limited attacks," he said. "Yesterday was a huge defeat for the Taliban."
"I think the election and political process will fracture the Taliban and they will eventually look for ways to reconcile with the government that comes in," the general said.
In the end, faulty ink — not bombs and bullets — was what threatened three years of painstaking progress toward democracy. The opposition candidates claimed the ink used to mark people's thumbs rubbed off too easily, allowing multiple voting.
Electoral officials rejected demands that voting be stopped at midday Saturday, saying it would rob millions of people of their first chance to directly decide their leader, and the joint U.N.-Afghan panel overseeing the election said it would rule later on the vote's legitimacy.
U.S. and U.N. officials did their best to put a positive spin on the day, saying the high turnout was a triumph for democracy.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged the controversy but said:
"The Afghan Nation has spoken — it has voted for democracy and freedom." He added a warning to the opposition: "For Afghanistan to win, the losers in the election should not undermine the achievement of the Afghan people."
Ray Kennedy, vice chairman of the joint U.N.-Afghan electoral panel overseeing the vote, added: "There have been some technical problems but overall it has been safe and orderly."
Even if the vote is ultimately validated, Karzai's ability to unite the nation, fight rampant warlordism and crush the Taliban insurgency might be fatally compromised if his opponents refuse to recognize the vote as legitimate.
Karzai — who is widely favored to win — said it was for an independent electoral panel to decide on the opposition complaints, but added that, in his view, "the election was free and fair ... it is very legitimate."
"Who is more important, these 15 candidates, or the millions of people who turned out today to vote?" Karzai said. "Both myself and all these 15 candidates should respect our people — because in the dust and snow and rain, they waited for hours and hours to vote."
On Sunday, ethnic-Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq held a press conference saying an electoral commission that includes representatives of the opposition campaigns should be formed to look into the vote. But he pulled back from some of the harsh language of the other candidates, and indicated he might accept a compromise.
"We want the United Nations to set up an independent commission including representatives of the candidates to investigate this ink and to come to a decision," Mohaqeq said. "If the result of the investigation is satisfactory then the commission should rule that the elections were legitimate. If not, then the vote was not legitimate."
The boycott was a blow to the international community, which spent almost $200 million staging the vote. At least 12 election workers, and dozens of Afghan security forces, died in the past few months as the nation geared up for the election.
The chaos also threatened to become part of the debate in the U.S. presidential campaign. President Bush has held Afghanistan up as an example of flourishing democracy and a precursor to elections his administration insists will occur in January in Iraq, despite continuing violence there.
In St. Louis on Saturday, the president exulted in the Afghan vote as a "marvelous thing" and said his administration should receive at least partial credit.
It was a starkly different scene in Kabul, where the opposition candidates met at the house of Uzbek candidate Abdul Satar Sirat and signed a petition saying they would not recognize the vote results.
Sirat, an ex-aide to Afghanistan's last king and a minor candidate expected to poll in the low single-digits, said all 15 challengers to Karzai agreed to the boycott.
Islamic poet Abdul Latif Padran, another minor candidate, said: "Today was a very black day. Today was the occupation of Afghanistan by America through elections."