KABUL, Afghanistan – A boycott of Afghanistan’s surprisingly peaceful first presidential election began to unravel Sunday when one of the 15 candidates challenging incumbent Hamid Karzai denied he was part of the protest.

“Their position was different than mine,” said Haji Mohammad Mahqiq. “My position is to make a complaint within the system. There should be a complete investigation.”

Also on Sunday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent election observers to Afghanistan, joined the joint United Nations-Afghan electoral commission in declaring that the problems with the election weren’t widespread enough to halt the vote.

“The candidates’ demand to nullify the election is unjustified,” said Robert Barry of the OSCE. “Such action would put into question the expressed will of millions of Afghans who came out to vote.”

The day’s developments are likely to end the boycott less than 24 hours after it started, clearing the way either for a winner to be declared or for a runoff election next month if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. It remains to be seen, however, whether Afghanistan, long divided by ethnic rivalries, wars and poverty, will unite behind the winner.

Nevertheless, set against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s history of violence, despotism and repression, especially of women, the election was a major success for the Bush administration and for U.S.-backed interim president Karzai, the likely winner when the ballots are counted.

Millions of people turned out to vote, and after weeks of threats, the Taliban didn’t mount any attacks to disrupt the election. Observers with the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan said there were no serious incidents of threats, intimidation or violence.

Late Sunday, representatives of the remaining 14 opposition candidates were meeting to discuss an end to the boycott. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and other U.S. officials have also spoken to the candidates.

The candidates called the boycott when the outcome of Saturday’s election looked as if it might be affected by problems with ink used to prevent people from voting more than once.

Officials relied on the ink because of concerns that some people might have registered multiple times. But the indelible ink could easily be washed or rubbed away, permitting some people to vote again. Officials said the mistake occurred when some polling stations mistakenly used the regular ink meant for the ballots.

Thousands of election workers have begun the arduous process of tallying the election results at eight counting centers around the country. A full count could take as long as three weeks.

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