Page last updated at 21:00 GMT, Monday, 2 November 2009

Afghan vote failed to learn from past

By Andrew North
BBC News, Kabul

Afghan voter shows her inked finger after the 2009 election
Indelible ink was supposed to show who had voted once

"Today's election is not a legitimate election," said one Afghan presidential candidate.

"It should be stopped and we don't recognise the results."

Along with 14 other candidates he was now boycotting the process.

In fact, this is not 2009 but October 9, 2004 - the day of Afghanistan's first presidential elections after the ousting of the Taliban.

Within hours of polling stations opening there were complaints of fraud.

We had reports of people voting several times because they had obtained multiple voting cards.

Then the indelible ink used to mark voters' thumbs turned out to be anything but.

You can't compare us with your 100 years of conducting elections with our experience of just a few years
Zekria Barakzai
Independent Election Commission

Broadcasting from a Kabul polling station, we had people coming up to us in disgust showing how they could rub off the purple ink and vote again.

Many had queued for hours to participate in Afghanistan's first proper democratic election.

In the end though, the view that took hold was that election had been a success given all the difficulties of holding a vote in such a damaged country.

Taliban threats to disrupt the process failed, although it was believed that was partly because of a deal that was done beforehand.

Fraud there may have been, diplomats said, but not enough to affect the result.

Everyone had always assumed Hamid Karzai, the West's favourite then, would win.

Five years on, Afghanistan's second presidential election was supposed to have gone more smoothly and to show that democracy is starting to bed down here.

"Each election in Afghanistan will be better than the last," one foreign diplomat promised in the run-up to election day in August.

Much was made too of this being an "Afghan-led process".

In 2004, the United Nations and the rest of the international community took the lead. This time they were supposed to be providing funding and back-up support.

Security concerns

But with security far worse than five years ago it was always optimistic to hope this election would proceed better.

With so many no-go areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan - the heartland of the Taliban insurgency - it was easy for supporters of President Karzai and other candidates to get away with fraud, using the so-called 'ghost' polling stations to create tens of thousands of fictitious votes.

There were some warnings, but this was supposed to be an Afghan-led process so there was a reluctance to intervene.

And despite the pointers from 2004 that fraud was likely, most people didn't take the issue seriously enough.

Afghanistan's clan and tribal based system contributed too.

AFghans queue to register to vote in 2004
The election in 2004 was riddled with fraud allegations - much like in 2009

In many remote villages - and most Afghans still live in rural areas, not towns and cities - people simply vote for who they are told to by their tribal leader.

So filling in a whole set of ballots for one candidate may not have seemed such a terrible thing to do, especially when they did it five years ago with no complaint.

The deputy head of the much-criticised Independent Election Commission, Zekria Barakzai, all but admitted this.

"A lot of people who committed fraud didn't realise it would cause problems," he said in a BBC interview.

But it went much higher up too. Some candidates spent millions of dollars buying up what were effectively the bloc votes of the tribal leaders.

And with illiteracy widespread, many village-dwelling Afghans still have only a limited understanding of democracy and the concept of "one-man, one-vote".

Now with the election over, but still overshadowed by questions of legitimacy, some ask whether it should ever have been allowed to take place.

Fledgling democracy

But it is unfair, Mr Barakzai continued, for the West to be too critical of what has happened. Afghanistan is still learning about democracy, he said.

"You can't compare us with your 100 years of conducting elections with our experience of just a few years."

The bigger question though is over the whole American-led strategy here since 2001, trying to bring democracy so quickly to a country which still has a barely-functioning government and infrastructure.

Things are a little better in Kabul and other cities and a few roads have been built between them.

But travel beyond, to the areas where most Afghans live, and signs of a government quickly fade away, along tracks with potholes dating back to the Soviet invasion.

When the Americans ousted the Taliban eight years ago, Afghans thought democracy meant more than just elections.

I remember being with a unit of US soldiers as they patrolled through a small village on Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

An officer asked an elder his view of President Karzai's administration in Kabul.

The man thought for a moment, looked the American up and down, then said: "You are the first people I've seen from the government in 40 years."

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