With presidential elections around the corner, the word on the street in Kabul is that no matter who wins, current Afghan leader Hamid Karzai will be president for yet another term. Such is the prevailing cynicism about the country's first democratic elections, which are scheduled to be held on 9 October.
How great is Karzai's support base? No viable census has been conducted to assess his popularity across the country, let alone the city of Kabul. While he is still widely considered the man supported by Afghanistan's foreign backers, the elections are a good time to ask: Is Karzai Afghanistan's man?
"I believe that Mr. Qanuni has started very late. He has announced his support for Mr. Karzai on several occasions. This puts his candidacy into question."
Two weeks ago, Karzai shocked observers when he sidelined Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim and appointed Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, brother of the late commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, as his first vice president (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July and 5 August 2004). The move suggested a desperate bid to garner support, especially among the mujahedin, who have been a thorn in the beleaguered leader's side since he first took office three years ago. And what better way to win over the mujahedin than to run with the brother of a slain national hero?
But Mas'ud, Afghanistan's ambassador to Moscow, is also the son-in-law of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was the internationally recognized Afghan president from 1992-2001. Does this signify a comeback for the leader of the Jami'at-e Islami party?
In an exclusive interview at his home in the posh Wazir Akbar Khan District, Rabbani told RFE/RL that Afghanistan's "first experience with democracy is not without any problems," but said he is going along with it anyway for the good of the nation.
"I believe that with the appointment of Ahmad Zia, Mr. Karzai will enjoy more support," Rabbani said, and then added: "It may result in an increase in support. But if it doesn't increase the support, it definitely won't reduce it."
He has no doubt that "the people of Panjsher [Province] will support Ahmad Zia."
"They have supported this family in the past, and they will support him in the future," he said. "Ahmad Zia hasn't got any problems of support. There might be some remarks against President Karzai. But as far as Ahmad Zia is concerned, he doesn't have any problems."
Should Ahmad Zia Mas'ud be considered a Panjsheri or as Jami'at-e Islami's man in government?
"I think that he should be considered as a Panjsheri who has replaced another Panjsheri in that position," he said, alluding to Fahim's recent displacement.
Complicating matters -- if only slightly -- was the announcement that Education Minister Yunos Qanuni, who served as a key military strategist for the late Mas'ud during the resistance, was also running for president. Would this split the Panjsheri vote?
Rabbani is skeptical: "I believe that Mr. Qanuni has started very late. He has announced his support for Mr. Karzai on several occasions. This puts his candidacy into question."
In spite of rumors that Qanuni -- backed by Marshall Fahim -- enjoys the support of the mujahedin and, as such, may pose a formidable challenge to Karzai, Rabbani said: "It's too early to say that the commanders have put their support behind Mr. Qanuni. The commanders have their own interests and they will definitely consider that before supporting Mr. Qanuni."
With regard to popular perception that the outcome of the elections are predetermined, he said: "There has been some concern regarding this and people have shown their concern. So even as we are experiencing democracy for the first time, we have to strive [to ensure] the elections are transparent."
Rabbani expressed some qualms over discrepancies between the election law and the constitution, which was ratified some months ago. The constitution stipulates that elections be conducted through secret balloting, but the government has ordered candidates to submit 10,000 ballot cards for their candidacy to be accepted.
"Although this election law has been passed by the UN, I don't know why it has not been considered [that it goes against our constitution]," he said. "This is, of course, one of the problems that in the early stages of democracy we are experiencing," Rabbani said.
Another problem is the timing of the elections. As a rule, elections tend to divide a people rather than unite them. Some observers have warned that it is too early to hold elections in Afghanistan. The country is still recovering from two decades of war and time is needed to build a civil society that could produce a viable democracy. In recent weeks, the country has shown further signs of polarization between the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the north and the Pashtuns in the south. In addition to the tribal issues, there are a number of new constituencies to reckon with, such as the Afghans who have returned from the West to set up private enterprises and the foreigners who may be here on a short-term basis for whatever purpose, but carry influence nonetheless.
"They have announced that as per the constitution, the elections should be held within this period, and although there are problems and there is a crisis of confidence, and certainly the elections do bring divisions and polarize the population, but as it has been decided now, [we must all try and make it work]," Rabbani said. "There is no doubt that [although] most of the things that the government starts are with good intentions, they are certainly not without dangers -- and there are dangers."
Another curious factor is the marked absence of any campaigning. Weeks before the elections, none of the candidates have taken to the streets to reach out to the people. There are no fiery speeches, no lofty promises of a better tomorrow.
"I have also inquired about this," Rabbani said, "and they have said that according to the law, they will start their campaign 30 days before the elections are held."
Observers speculate Rabbani may be given the position of speaker of parliament after the elections, but when asked what role he plans to play in the government, the former president replied, "I am looking forward to having a membership in the parliament for Badakhshan" Province in northeastern Afghanistan.