Prague 22 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- With Afghanistan's presidential election less than three weeks away, aides of transitional leader Hamid Karzai have been trying to negotiate a political deal with his chief rival -- the former Interior and Education Minister Yunos Qanuni.
"The New York Times" quoted one member of Karzai's administration as saying that the deal would probably give Qanuni a ministerial post. In exchange, Qanuni would quit the election and support Karzai's candidacy. The report also said a final deal could allow two of Qanuni's political allies to keep their current posts -- Defense Minister Marshall Qasim Fahim and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
"There has not been any special agreement. And we are determined to continue our campaign for election."
Qanuni confirmed on 20 September that indirect talks have been under way with Karzai's camp. But Qanuni said he has not received a satisfactory offer from Karzai. "We did not have any direct negotiation with Mr. Karzai. But our close friends had some contacts and talks with Mr. Karzai. Rumors of a coalition deal were the result," he said. "We wanted to see if somehow, instead of going in two directions, we could instead work together in the election campaign. Unfortunately, we did not reach any serious understanding. So there has not been any special agreement. And we are determined to continue our campaign for election."
In a telephone interview yesterday from New York, where he is attending the UN General Assembly, Karzai also told RFE/RL that rumors of a coalition deal are false. But the Afghan leader suggested he is leaving open the possibility of some political rivals taking up posts in the next government if he wins the elections.
"For those who want a coalition cabinet, I do not have a place for them. But those who want a government of national partnership and a government for the people of Afghanistan -- according to my agenda for a free, stable, habitable, and independent Afghanistan -- they are most welcome," Karzai said.
Qanuni is one of the leading members of Jamiat-e Islami -- a mostly ethnic Tajik political grouping of former mujahedin commanders from the Panjsher Valley north of Kabul. Defense Minister Fahim and Foreign Minister Abdullah are the other members of Jamiat-e Islami who have been part of Karzai's transitional government.
Qanuni is popular among ethnic Tajiks in the Panjsher Valley, as well as among members of other ethnic groups in the former Northern Alliance who had fought against the Taliban regime and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Some political analysts say Qanuni could prevent Karzai from getting the 50 percent of the vote he needs to win the presidency outright in the first round.
But Jonathan Goodhand, an expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told RFE/RL that few doubt that Karzai will ultimately win. "The general opinion is -- both inside [Afghanistan] and by experts looking from the outside -- that Karzai will win," he said. "Whether it is going to a second [runoff ballot] is much more unclear, though."
John Sifton is a researcher in Kabul for the U.S. -based nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch. He agrees that Karzai is unlikely to lose the election. But Sifton said Karzai may be exchanging future political favors in order to win more votes and strengthen his democratic legitimacy. Sifton said it is in this context that some of Karzai's challengers are using the elections as an opportunity to create political capital and solidify their own power. He said the concern is whether Karzai will appoint a cabinet of warlords after winning the election.
Goodhand said a cabinet of warlords could threaten the success of critical reforms, such as the demobilization and disarmament of private militia groups across the country. "There is going to be continual tension between the need to make negotiations with certain power holders [and] the danger that that will solidify [warlordism and] prevent future reform. There's no magic bullet," hesaid. "It's going to be about different tactics and strategies with different types of power holders. Some, perhaps, can be brought into the new physical dispensation. Some have to be excluded from it."
Despite the denials from both Karzai and Qanuni about any pre-election deal, "The New York Times" quoted officials close to Karzai as saying Qanuni may throw his support behind Karzai's campaign within a few days.