Doubts about Afghan poll must be cleared up
The enthusiasm shown by voters in yesterday's historic elections in Afghanistan has provided the world with a strong and moving symbol of hope for this troubled nation.
Unfortunately, their courage has not been sufficient to prevent the unprecedented presidential polls running into problems. The votes have not yet been counted. But the legitimacy of the result is already in question.
Even before the polling booths closed, all 15 candidates challenging President Hamid Karzai had announced they were pulling out amid allegations of fraud. Even by the relatively low standards by which this particular election is to be judged, their action has struck a powerful blow to the credibility of the process.
The problem arose early in the day. Voters were supposed to have their thumbs marked with indelible ink as an important safeguard to ensure they only voted once. But it soon became clear that in some polling stations, the wrong ink had been used - and it could be erased.
This immediately raised doubts about the fairness of the election, already troubled by evidence of multiple registration by voters. More than 10 million people registered. This is roughly double the figure which the United Nations had predicted and it is higher than the estimates of eligible voters.
A system which ensured people could only vote once - no matter how many voting cards they possessed - became a necessity. If that system is shown to be flawed, the possibility of widespread fraud exists.
But the extent of the problem with the ink remains unclear. Election officials refused to halt the polls, even though all the candidates opposing Mr Karzai had announced that they were boycotting it.
The officials described the problem as small, unintentional and quickly resolved. We hope that is the case. It is possible that the opposition candidates have latched on to it in a bid to scupper an election which they knew Mr Karzai was hotly tipped to win.
But efforts must now be made to establish if this really is the position, or whether there is any evidence of a deliberate attempt to rig the election.
One of the problems is that the international election monitors faced an impossible task. There fewer than 500 of them striving to cover 23,000 polling stations. They were joined by several thousand Afghan observers. But doubts remain about their ability to ensure the elections were fair.
The European observers have said they will not pass judgment on the elections, as it would be unfair to apply international standards to Afghanistan. That may be a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced in staging this election, but it does little to help establish the poll's credibility.
Results are not expected for around two weeks. By then, it is to be hoped that the doubts will have been cleared up, for in several important respects, the election went surprisingly well. Voters queued outside mosques and schools serving as polling stations. They expressed joy at being able to choose their leader. And many said they were voting for a peaceful and stable future.
The feared attacks by the Taleban, intent on disrupting the election, did not materialise. Voters were, in the end, generally able to register their preference in peace. Fittingly, given the discrimination against women during five years of Taleban rule, the first voter was a female refugee.
This election was held against extraordinary odds. It was always going to encounter problems. The fraud claims must be resolved. If the election result is going to usher in a new era for Afghanistan, it has to be credible.
It is to be hoped the problem will not prevent the polls being regarded as a relative success. That is the least the Afghan people deserve.