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Rivals' Tactics Bad News for Afghan Run-off

One week before second round of troubled presidential elections, both candidates are engaging in potentially dangerous brinkmanship.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

The biggest question surrounding Afghanistan’s run-off elections, scheduled for November 7, is whether they will actually happen. Both incumbent president Hamed Karzai and his challenger Dr Abdullah Abdullah are playing an intricate and possibly destructive game, issuing ultimatums and working the local and national media.



It took days of fierce negotiating by a variety of international heavyweights to get Karzai to agree to the run-off in the first place. But ever since his October 20 press conference when he grinned for the cameras and accepted the election commission’s decision to hold a second round of voting, Karzai has been touting the benefits of the poll. It would be “insulting democracy” not to hold them, he told CNN.



Abdullah, meanwhile, seems to be doing whatever he can to scupper the vote. He has advanced a set of conditions for his participation in the elections. He has stopped short of saying that he would boycott them if his demands are not met, but he has strongly hinted that there would be consequences if Karzai ignored him.



The conditions include the sacking of Azizullah Lodin, head of the Independent Election Commission. Abdullh has accused him of complicity in the widespread fraud, largely in favour of Karzai, that was found to have occurred in the first round of election on August 20.



Abdullah is also asking that Karzai suspend the minister of interior, Hanif Atmar, the minister of education, Farooq Wardak, the acting minister of borders and tribal affairs, Asadullah Khaled, and the head of the Independent Directorate for Local Governance, Jailani Popal. All of these men supported Karzai and hence were also part of the massive vote-rigging, charges Abdullah.



In addition, Abdullah demands that the so-called ghost polling centres, located in areas of great insecurity, be closed down. It was largely at these stations that wholesale ballot-box stuffing occurred, due mainly to the absence of monitors and the extremely low voter turnout.



Abdullah has given Karzai until the end of the month to respond, pushing his decision on whether to run perilously close to the polling date.



According to Abdullah, without these changes, the second round of voting would be no more transparent or legitimate than the first.



But within hours of Abdullah’s near-ultimatum, Karzai rejected any possibility of a compromise. He told the BBC Persian service that Abdullah’s demands were illegal and would be detrimental to a free and fair election.



“The ministers and officials that Abdullah wants removed have done nothing against the law,” Karzai said. “They will continue in their jobs.”



He dismissed Abdullah’s implied threat of a boycott.



“The law clearly orders the second round of elections,” he said. “We cannot escape from the elections. But each candidiate has the right to participate or not.”



He did not explain how the elections would proceed if Abdullah decided to withdraw, however.



The run-off has been a difficult prospect from the start. Karzai, who received 55 per cent of the vote according to preliminary results, has never formally acknowledged that he did not receive a first-round victory. Instead, he has blamed the Electoral Complaints Commission for “defaming” the elections and “disrespecting” the nearly one million votes cast for him that were thrown out by the ECC.



Sacking the election chief would give at least tacit acknowledgement to the claims of Abdullah and many others that the fraud was perpetrated at the highest levels of government – Lodin was appointed by Karzai.



Despite Karzai’s clear rejection of his demands, Abdullah and his team have not lost heart.



Abdullah’s campaign spokesperson, Fazel Sancharaki, told IWPR that the president had responded in haste.



“The president always reacts quickly, and then regrets it,” he said. “We are waiting for our deadline, and we are sure there will be a change.”



Sancharaki emphasised that the conditions were fair, and were aimed at ensuring a more legitimate vote.



But Moen Marastyal, a Karzai campaign official, said that Abdullah’s demands were against the law.



“Only parliament can suspend ministers,” he said. “And the head of the IEC is appointed by special order of the president. Sacking him without cause or proof is also illegal.”



Abdullah and his team were just out to sabotage the vote, Marastyal insisted.



“[Abdullah’s] conditions are against the constitution. He does not want a second round. This will drive Afghanistan into a crisis, with anarchy and looting,” he said.



Shahla Farid, a professor of law and political science at Kabul University, agrees with Marastyal that Abdullah’s demands have no basis in law.



“Abdullah does not know the law,” she said. “He cannot impose his own perspective on the law and on his rival. I think both candidates should make some political concessions in the national interest, to avoid a crisis.”



But political analyst Wahid Muzhda insists that Abdullah’s demands were fair, given the level of illegality in the first round of the elections.



“Abdullah knows very well that if the organs that perpetrated the fraud in favour of Karzai are allowed to continue there is no hope that he could win,” he said.



Muzhda has no great expectations for the second round. The elections from the very beginning were a political game staged by America, he said.



“It was America who wanted the elections,” he said. “They are trying to move the country towards a Loya Jirga (Grand Council), with an interim government. Karzai would have just a symbolic role in that government, which would accept everything that America wants.”



The issue of foreign interference in the elections is a sensitive one. Many ordinary Afghans agree with Muzhda that the United States is maneuvering behind the scenes for its own interests.



Muzhda is also concerned that a second round will deepen the ethnic divisions within the country. There is a clear split between the Tajiks of the north, most of whom support Abdullah, and the Pashtuns of the south, who overwhelmingly favour Karzai. The campaign could play on these differences, causing existing rifts to deepen.



“A second round will drive Afghanistan one step closer to disintegration,” he said.



Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.

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