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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Afghans are counting their votes from Saturday's election for parliament. The voting took place even though about 20 percent of polling stations never opened. It was too dangerous to cast ballots in much of the country.

In a moment, we'll hear what the United Nations representative thinks about the results. Officials are hoping those results will have a more lasting effect than the ink on people's fingers. The famous ink proving people voted turned out to be less indelible than advertised.

Here's our colleague, Renee Montagne.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the biggest questions that loomed over Saturday's parliamentary election was whether it would be a replay of last year's presidential vote, which featured the wholesale vote rigging that helped put President Karzai back in office. Before putting that to the UN's top man in Afghanistan, I visited several polling stations in Kabul. The first, at a girls' high school, was bustling.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

MONTAGNE: The process was pretty straightforward: sign in, get your voter ID card punched, have your finger dipped in indelible ink and vote. In fact, that ink was the center of the big ruckus of the morning.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

MONTAGNE: The crowd had gathered around an older man who was red-faced and holding up his finger. It was clean, no ink to be seen. And I voted, he shouted angrily.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken) (Through translator) He says I'm a candidate myself, and I cast my vote and they put my finger in the ink. But when I went home, I washed it away, bleach, soap and water.

MONTAGNE: In fact, one of the complaints heard over and over on voting day was that the indelible ink wasn't indelible at all, which opened the door, a lot of voters worried, for others to vote a second or third time.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: That was the issue at another polling station shortly before we got there. A man with a suspicious number of voting cards was hauled away by police. One of the poll watchers had seen the whole thing. Rassoul was keeping an eye on the voting for his candidate, a professor at Kabul University.

RASSOUL: (Foreign language spoken) (Through translator) There was this one guy who had seven voting cards. That's how we found out. And we informed the police. He had the fake voting cards both in his pockets and in his hand. And we saw that that guy was under 18. He's not eligible for voting. That's how we spotted him.

MONTAGNE: Besides Rassoul, there was also Mohammad Mobeen, a poll watcher for a powerful conservative incumbent, plus high school teacher Abdul Kayuum, an observer for one of the most influential candidates of all: the current speaker of the parliament.

It seems like there - you're observers for all different candidates, so everyone has an interest in trying to make sure only legitimate voters vote.

Mr. ABDUL KAYUUM: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man (Translator): He says we observers are here to make sure that the process is very democratic.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

MONTAGNE: A different scenario played out among the women voters. Earlier in the day, a poll watcher in the woman's section whispered that she'd seen poll workers pointing out who to vote for then pointing to their palms to indicate a payment would be made. But three other women, there on behalf of three different candidates, were adamant they'd never seen such a thing. Here's how poll watcher Rahima explained what might've happened.

RAHIMA: (Foreign language spoken) (Through translator) Most of the women are uneducated and illiterate. And if they can't find their favorite candidate on the ballot, poll workers are allowed to point that candidate out. These women usually have a picture, and you match that with the picture on the ballot so they can cast their vote.

MONTAGNE: These poll watchers were veiled, of course, but happy to pose for a group photo. And when another woman joked: Now the Taliban can track you down and then she ran her finger across her neck, Rahima just laughed. You see, we're sisters, she said, and if the Taliban get one, there's still one of us left.

And those were some of the concerns at polling stations in Kabul on Saturday's election day. Early reactions to the vote ran the gamut. The Independent Free and Fair Election Foundation emphasized the widespread incidents of voter fraud. The head of the country's election commission declared the vote, quote, "as a whole, a success."

When we sat down with special envoy Staffan de Mistura at UN headquarters here, I asked him to size up this election.

Mr. STAFFAN DE MISTURA (U.N. Secretary General's Special Representative for Afghanistan): It is quite a miracle that the elections took place. In Afghanistan, during the worst possible timing, in the middle of a major conflict, around four million people - in spite of the threats and in spite of everything - decided to go to vote, men and women, which meant also that they believe in the outcome.

And that leads me to the second issue: how credible these elections will be. Well, first of all, we need to wait and see. Second, these elections are going to be scrutinized by the Afghans themselves to begin with.

MONTAGNE: De Mistura says another key improvement this time around were the election observers, like the ones we just heard from.

Mr. DE MISTURA: 392,000 observers. And therefore, each of them are watching each other in order to be able to see whether they could become elected. And that's, in a way, a more stringent guarantee than having international observers. We may not speak the language. We may be blind. But when there are so many, and they're all defending each other's candidates, then in a way, it is quite a guarantee that there will be much more scrutiny. That's all I'm saying.

MONTAGNE: There are still other issues about corruption, candidates who are tied to drugs or illegal activities who were running. They weren't weeded out. In fact, a lot of talk of a lot of vote buying, which something wouldn't show up at the polls in an obvious way. How concerning is that to you?

Mr. DE MISTURA: It is. But we have to be also, frankly, realistic. There is a culture of democracy which is really embryonic at the beginning. There are quite a few of these types of people who are already sitting in the parliament. We all know it.

But at the same time, look at the candidates this time. About 45, 48 percent are new people, young people. So what we are hoping is that since the process has improved - frankly, everybody's acknowledging this - might give us the opportunity of seeing some progress even among that issue that you raised.

MONTAGNE: Do you see, as some people have suggested, that this particular election is a key indicator of how well this government is functioning, and whether it can survive when international forces start pulling out?

Mr. DE MISTURA: Well, it is an important step, but not the crucial one. The crucial one will be whether the government is able to deliver what the people need. But the elections are important. They are a test of whether people believe in ballots rather than bullets. And, too, whether the previous elections - which didn't go well - can become corrected in whatever process will be improving in the eyes of the Afghans - in other words, that they will be more credible.

MONTAGNE: You took over as the U.N. envoy after last year's presidential election. What do you say to critics who charge that at that moment a year ago, when the international community signed off on the results of what was widely agreed was a flawed presidential election, that the international community lost leverage and ceded politics here in Afghanistan to the corrupt?

Mr. DE MISTURA: Well, what I would say is simply that everyone, I believe, was a loser in that election, including the international community's credibility. Lessons were learned, but the real test comes now. How will the complaints be looked at? How strongly the electoral commission and the complaints commission will be able to resist pressures, we will see that.

MONTAGNE: Staffan de Mistura, thank you very much.

Mr. DE MISTURA: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Staffan de Mistura is the U.N. secretary general's special representative for Afghanistan. He spoke with us here in Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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