Unsettled Afghanistan prepares for new elections, new challenges

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In the August presidential election, Parvez Mohammad, a 21-year-old cashier at a fast-food restaurant, supported former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. His father and three uncles voted to give incumbent Hamid Karzai another five years in office.

For the runoff Nov. 7, Mohammad said, the rest of his family has decided to switch allegiance and back the challenger.

"It's because of all the voting fraud," Mohammad said. "This time around, they won't support Karzai."

The fraud involved hundreds of thousands of Karzai ballots, which an Afghan election commission threw out. The political effect of the voting scandal is one more unknown among many in the upcoming runoff election.

While most observers think that Karzai is favored to win, the size of the turnout, the intensity of promised insurgent attacks and the age-old Afghan craft of deal-making could make that prediction less certain.

Originally, Karzai threatened to reject a runoff. He yielded only after an extensive and prolonged lobbying campaign by U.S. and other Western diplomats that lasted through Tuesday afternoon.

There still is a possibility that the election won't happen, should Abdullah opt to withdraw from the race in return for political concessions. At a courtyard news conference Wednesday at his home in Kabul, however, Abdullah said he'd launch an abbreviated campaign that would take him to a few provinces outside Kabul. He repeatedly rejected suggestions that he might abandon his quest for the presidency.

"My own desire is that the second round will take place on time under good circumstances and good conditions as far as security is concerned, as far as transparency of the election is concerned," Abdullah said. "That's all I am committed to, and I have promised my people to pursue."

Abdullah is an ophthalmologist who joined the northern alliance, which fought the Taliban, and served as foreign minister under Karzai. In the interim between the election Aug. 20 and Tuesday's announcement of the runoff, Abdullah pounded on the vote scandal, holding multiple news conferences to display evidence of ballot box stuffing and denounce what he alleged was massive fraud orchestrated by the Karzai government and supporters.

On Wednesday, Abdullah toned down his rhetoric. He praised Karzai for accepting the election results released Monday, which gave the incumbent just under the 50 percent plus one vote threshold needed to avoid a runoff. He also vowed to run a campaign that wouldn't seek to divide the nation along ethnic lines.

However, Abdullah acknowledged concerns about the possibility of more fraud in the second round, and said he was preparing recommendations to help prevent a repeat. The United Nations also has pressed for more than 200 of the 680 district officials of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to be replaced for the new election.

In the last election, more than 5.6 million votes initially thought to be valid were counted in September. Then hundreds of thousands of questionable ballots were discounted in the final count. Most of them were taken away from Karzai. In the tally announced Monday, Karzai had 49.8 percent of the vote and Abdullah about 32 percent.

The size of the voter pool this time around could have a significant effect on the outcome of the election. Karzai and Abdullah are hoping to generate some excitement for the next round. On the streets of Kabul, some voters who were interviewed said they definitely were going to participate.

Bahuddin Besharat, an auto parts salesman, recalled the early 1990s, when warlords clashed for control of the government and rockets fell in a nearby street, killing many people. As flawed as the election process had been, Besharat said, it was still a big improvement over civil war, and he was going to vote.

"I am very happy this went to runoff," Besharat said. "This election is a good thing for democracy."

However, some predict that Afghans, weary of haggling over election results and fearful of renewed insurgent attacks at polling places, are likely to stay away in far greater numbers than they did in the first round.

"This time around, the people will not participate," said Wadir Safi, a political analyst who teaches at Kabul University, who predicted a turnout of less than half that of the first election.

A small turnout could work in Abdullah's favor. That's because Karzai is strong in many Pashtun-dominated provinces, where insurgents are powerful and where the prospect of violence is expected to keep away many voters. So unless fraud bolsters the ballot counts, Karzai might not be able to translate much of his political support into votes.

In the days ahead, Karzai and Abdullah are expected to try to shore up old alliances with tribal groups across Afghanistan and see if they can forge new ones.

They also may court support from the defeated third-place candidate, Ramzan Bashardost, a populist parliamentarian who lives in a tent and who won about 9 percent of the vote in the preliminary tally.

It's hard to predict how much sway Bashardost will have over his supporters, but he said he'd be reaching out to them over the next 10 days, and then announcing whom he'd support.

"I am the kingmaker," he declared.

(Bernton reports for The Seattle times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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