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Hamed Karzai: Karzai Re-election Seen as a Done Deal

President Hamed Karzai is tipped to win - but will the poll be fair?
By Hafizullah Gardish

Afghanistan is gearing up for its landmark presidential poll on October 9, but while the United Nations and the electoral management body are likely to be able to deliver a voting process, it remains unclear whether the result will truly reflect the people's choice.

The unchecked power of regional commanders, a resurgent Taleban, voter intimidation and United States support for the incumbent, President Hamed Karzai - who is widely expected to win - all put in question the possibility of a free and fair vote.

Karzai, 46, is the only candidate well known outside Afghanistan. He was first appointed to the post by the international community at the Bonn conference in 2001 and later elected interim president by the Emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002.

This has led to a widespread perception that the elections are set to serve as the anointment of Karzai, and not as a genuine choice.

Twenty-one candidates have indicated that they wish to stand, but by last weekend, none had completed the formal registration requirements of the Joint Electoral Management Body.

To have their names appear on the ballot, candidates must submit photocopies of 10,000 registration cards and pay a fee of 1,000 US dollars.

Sayed Ishaq Gailani, the leader of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan and one of those who has indicated that he will stand, said that the circumstances surrounding the election mean the result is already decided.

"I have always said that only one sentence is missing from the election law: 'Karzai is the president', " said Gailani, who comes from an influential Afghan family.

Other would-be candidates include Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a former deputy to Ittihad-e-Islami leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and one woman, Dr Massouda Jalal, who challenged Karzai for the presidency at the 2002 Loya Jirga .

Ahmadzai, a former deputy prime minister under the pre-Taleban government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, said Karzai should stand down from his current post if he wants to run for president.

On the street, there is a widespread view that Karzai's election has been decided in advance.

Gul Mohammed, 63, a farmer from the Deh Sabz district of Kabul province, said he saw no point in voting. "Why should I make an effort?" he asked. "Karzai will be the president."

"If America was able to earmark Karzai as Afghan president during the collapse of the Taleban, while he was in the Oruzgan mountains [central Afghanistan], then why can't it do the same now?"

"Other candidates shouldn't try, and shouldn't spend money. None of them has the same international support that Karzai has," said Wali Kandiwal, a writer and poet from Jalalabad. "Nowadays, everyone knows that international support is preferred to Afghan support," he added.

Karzai clearly enjoys strong American backing.

And some Afghans accuse him of being too influenced by the United States. Professor Rasul Amin, head of the Assessment Centre for Afghanistan, said he believes the Americans have designed the political sketch-plan for Afghanistan - and not Karzai.

The interim president meets regularly with US Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad and is driven around the capital in an American armoured personnel carrier, protected by US bodyguards.

On July 4th, America's Independence Day, he was in the US to receive the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, an award presented each year by the non-profit, non-political Philadelphia Foundation to recognise leadership in the pursuit of freedom. Karzai touched a raw nerve among some Afghans by proclaiming, "God bless America and Afghanistan. God bless our two nations."

Last week, the Asia Foundation released the results of a nationwide political poll. The statistical base was small, with just 804 respondents across 29 of the country's 32 provinces.

It found overall that nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of Afghans believed Karzai was doing a "good" or "excellent" job as president, while more than half (57 per cent) rated the transitional government as "good" or "excellent".

But there were strong regional differences. In the south, Karzai got positive ratings from just over a third (35 per cent) while 46 per cent rated him "fair" or "poor". And in the northwest, just 20 per cent gave him a positive rating compared with more than two thirds (71 per cent) who described him as "fair" or "poor".

As an Afghan politician, Karzai's background would suggest he has the potential to draw on widespread support across the country.

A powerful Pashtun from the Taleban's former stronghold of Kandahar in the south, he fought with the mujahedin in the struggle against the Soviets in 1982.

But during his interim presidency he has failed to impose central authority across this divided country.

While security in the capital is provided by the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, under NATO command, much of the rest of the country is under the control of regional commanders who profit from the drug trade and retain powerful private militias.

Karzai has been unable to prevent a worsening of the security situation. In the run-up to the election, election workers - particularly women - have been targeted for attack. Several were recently killed in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

Habibullah Rafi, an analyst with Kelid, an organisation of print and broadcast outlets, said, "I can say even now that the elections will based neither on justice nor people's interests", because irresponsible local commanders and gunmen refuse to obey the central government.

Rafi accuses Karzai of behaving undemocratically by meeting leading local commanders in Kabul and allegedly promising them positions in a future government.

Karzai has consistently denied these accusations. But heavily armed commanders in the provinces pose a major challenge.

Nasrullah Stanikzai, lecturer in law and rights at Kabul University, said, "the main problem for the government is that it's not able to have power across the country".

Karzai last week signed a decree threatening tough measures against warlords who resist the nationwide disarmament drive. But the extent to which police and the emergent justice system will prosecute violators remains unclear.

Previous attempts by Karzai to impose authority over key provinces have been violently rejected.

Early this month, in the western province of Herat, the central head of intelligence was forced to return to Kabul after members of his staff were beaten. Herat is the stronghold of commander Ismail Khan.

In April, in the northern province of Faryab, governor Enayatullah Enayat - a nominee of the central government - resigned because of local resistance. The commander in the region is Abdul Rashid Dostum. Likewise in neighbouring Saripul province, Abdul Haq Shafaq stepped down as governor after coming under pressure. Saripul is also under Dostum's sway.

In Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the northern Balkh province, the central government has been unable to assign anyone as mayor. In addition, the chief of police - who had been sent to Balkh by the interior ministry in Kabul - was recently detained in his house by the forces of General Atta Mohammed, the commander of Jamiat-e-Islami in the north of Afghanistan.

Such incidents underscore Karzai's political need to win over the commanders. The irony is that one of his greatest problems lies with many of the same northern leaders who just three years ago helped his ally America defeat the Taleban and bring him to power.

Hafizullah Gardish is an IWPR editor in Kabul. Reporters Wahidullah Amani, Shahabuddin Tarakhil, Hakim Basharat, Jawad Sharifzada and regional bureaus contributed to this report.

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