THREAT OF VIOLENCE OVERSHADOWS AFGHAN ELECTIONS

<em>An Afghan woman attends a campaign rally for presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul. The vote, which will be held on Aug. 20, is the country's second presidential elections since the Taliban's ouster in 2001. </em>

An Afghan woman attends a campaign rally for presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul. The vote, which will be held on Aug. 20, is the country's second presidential elections since the Taliban's ouster in 2001.

BY CHRISTIAN NEEF

Afghans go to the polls Thursday to vote for a new president. But if the incumbent Hamid Karzai declares victory after the first round of elections, his opponents, who fear vote-rigging, are threatening to take to the streets. Observers warn that things could get bloody.

It is less than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) from the presidential palace in downtown Kabul, known as the Arg, to the stadium near the Id Gah Mosque. It’s a distance Afghan President Hamid Karzai is still willing to walk, during an election campaign in his own country.

“I pledge to ensure an unobstructed election,” he boasted to a recent gathering of 15,000 supporters, and challenged them to “vote for peace and prosperity.” He also inserted the usual appeal to the Taliban, urging them not to close themselves off from the peace process.

Peace process? What peace process?

The response came promptly from Pul-i-Alam, the provincial capital of Logar province, where armed men entered the downtown area in broad daylight, occupied a building and gunned down several policemen. Logar borders Kabul province to the south, and Pul-i-Alam is only 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the capital. It was the closest a Taliban attack had ever come to Kabul.

Declarations of Loyalty

Pro-government newspapers believe that the election has already been decided in Karzai’s favor, despite the bleak security situation. The country supports him, insists the Afghanistan Times, noting that 10,000 residents of Daykundi province have pledged to vote Karzai into office for a second term, as have 500 tribal elders in Oruzgan province. The media’s daily declarations of loyalty sound as if they had been penned by a Soviet politburo.

Some of the 41 presidential candidates have already withdrawn, with most of them endorsing Karzai. The incumbent is so confident that he turned down offers of television debates with his strongest rivals, including one on Tolo TV, a privately owned station, that would have been viewed by 10 million Afghans. Karzai made his view clear that the station didn’t sufficiently appreciate his accomplishments, and that his main rivals in the election had no understanding of the “principles of a civilized conversation.”

<em>Afghan presidential candidate President Hamid Karzai: Unlike in 2004, when he got 55 percent of the vote, Karzai only has the support of about 30 to 40 percent of voters.</em>

Afghan presidential candidate President Hamid Karzai: Unlike in 2004, when he got 55 percent of the vote, Karzai only has the support of about 30 to 40 percent of voters.

Karzai’s challengers include his main rival Abdullah Abdullah, an eye doctor, and Ashraf Ghani, a former executive with the World Bank in Washington and the chancellor of Kabul University. Abdullah was once the foreign minister under Karzai, while Ghani earned accolades in his former capacity as finance minister.

To be sure, even international observers believe Karzai is the frontrunner going into Afghanistan’s second presidential elections, which take place on Thursday. But they are surprised by the president’s arrogance and the audacious back-room politics he has pursued in recent weeks to buy up a sufficient number of supporters, neither of which have made Karzai any more popular.

‘Karzai Knows All Kinds of Tricks’

But as the day of the election nears, the country is growing increasingly nervous, partly because the vote will not be decided on Aug. 20. It will take four weeks to count the ballots, which will be cast directly in towns and villages this time, and Kabul will not announce the official results of the election until Sept. 17. If that outcome does not show any of the candidates having captured at least 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election will take place on Oct. 1, in which a simple majority will determine the outcome. In other words, Afghanistan could face a two-month impasse, creating a great deal of uncertainty in an already unstable country.

<em>Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah listen to his speech as the two-month presidential campaign comes to a close. </em>

Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah listen to his speech as the two-month presidential campaign comes to a close.

But what happens if there is a runoff election? The answer to this question will determine more than just the name of the ultimate winner.

Karzai’s problem is that he cannot expect to sail across the finish line with the 55 percent of votes he captured in 2004 — assuming that the vote is above board. According to the polls, he has the support of only about 30 to 40 percent of voters. Young people, in particular, are disappointed that he chose to align himself with the most vicious warlords of past civil wars, thereby securing the votes of their supporters. “Karzai knows all kinds of tricks, and he’ll use them,” says the Kabul-based political analyst Wahed Mughzada.

He has lived up to this reputation in recent weeks, amid rumors that his cronies have registered large numbers of phantom voters. He has also used tried-and-tested corruption techniques in an attempt to put rivals Abdullah and Ghani out of contention.

Ghani is currently Karzai’s greatest threat, even though polls have him in fourth place, behind former Planning Minister Ramazan Bashardost. An anthropologist who almost died of stomach cancer 12 years ago, Ghani is not only the harshest critic of Karzai and his “incompetent administration,” but he is also the only candidate with a “10-year plan” to develop Afghanistan — a plan that calls for the creation of a million jobs.

But Ghani poses an even greater threat because he, like the president, is a Pashtun. His candidacy could dilute the number of Pashtun votes for Karzai, clearing the path to victory for Abdullah, the idol of Afghanistan’s Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Threat or Offer?

To help ward off the threat, Karzai in July deployed his most effective weapon, one which has already proven to be effective in the past, in the form of one of his six brothers, Abdul Qayum Karzai, a businessman and former member of parliament, who has also maintained contact with the Taliban.

Qayum offered Ghani the job of a “chief executive” in Karzai’s next government if he withdrew his candidacy. The position, which the president also offered to Abdullah a few weeks ago, would resemble that of a prime minister. In seeking to convince Ghani, Qayum argued that his chances of winning the election were practically zero, and that if by some chance he did, he would “not be able to remain in power.”

Whether this was a threat or an offer, Ghani refused to play along, partly because he knows what everyone in Kabul now knows: that Karzai has already promised the 20 cabinet posts to other minions. That would severely limit a prime minister’s scope for wielding influence.

A Gun in Every House

Ghani is playing his cards close to his chest in terms of his intentions after the election. Meanwhile Abdullah, for his part, is already predicting an Iranian-style scenario should Karzai be declared the winner after the first vote. According to Ghani, such an outcome would be inconceivable “without widespread corruption,” because the numbers simply do not support an absolute majority for Karzai. If that happens, says Ghani, his supporters will launch mass protests.

Any such protests would not be as peaceful as they were in Tehran, predicts Haroun Mir, director of the Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. “People will come with their Kalashnikovs,” he says. “There is a gun in every house in Kabul.”

But if there is a run-off election, this could turn out to be a far more serious situation for Afghanistan. In that case, the country would be “polarized along ethnic lines,” says Mir, noting that it would also give the Taliban time to regroup.

<em>The Taliban has repeatedly threatened to disrupt the elections by attacking polling stations. </em>

The Taliban has repeatedly threatened to disrupt the elections by attacking polling stations.

Last week, US officials rejected rumors that Karzai, no longer certain of victory, might postpone the vote at the last minute. According to US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Washington expects the election to take place this Thursday.

But even if Karzai manages to remain in the Arg for a second term, he will not be able to avoid opening up his cabinet to other political forces. He de facto admitted as much last Thursday, when he said that after the election, he would “extend an invitation to Dr. Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, serve them tea and food and offer them jobs.” But Karzai’s tone left his two challengers with only one option: to turn him down.

See Related: WORLD POLITICS

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