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With Runoff On Horizon, A View Of Afghanistan's Rocky Political Landscape

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) and his runoff challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) and his runoff challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah
Political tensions are on the rise in Afghanistan as the country braces for a challenging presidential runoff on November 7.

On October 26, incumbent President Hamid Karzai rejected demands from his election rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, that key cabinet ministers be replaced and the country's top election official be removed if he is to participate in the electoral process.

Abdullah claimed that Azizullah Ludin, head of the Afghan Election Commission, should be fired immediately because "he has left no credibility for the institution and, unfortunately, for himself."

"These are practical, very technical [conditions]," Abdullah said in explaining his demand. "It will only help the transparency of the elections, and these are the minimum conditions. And by meeting these conditions, I think we can [build] the right foundation for the future of this country. It will be a step forward, and the outcome of such an election -- I will be the first one to welcome it [whatever] that outcome would be."

Mohammad Yunos Fakur, a Kabul-based independent Afghan analyst, questions Abdullah's true motives. Fakur suggests that Abdullah, who officially finished second to Karzai in the first round with 31.5 percent of the vote, sees the unlikelihood of a second-round victory and is trying to gain key concessions, including power-sharing, ahead of the vote.

Analysts widely expect Karzai to improve on his first-round tally, which gave him just under 50 percent of the vote. They expect Karzai to capitalize on his incumbency by wooing Afghans who voted in the first round for third candidates, such as populist lawmaker Ramazan Bashardost and reform-minded former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani.

'Moving Toward A Clash'

The notion that "politics is the art of the possible" is stretched to extreme limits in Afghanistan. Given the country's peculiar circumstances, Afghan analysts suggest that looking at mere poll numbers and predicting results based on past voting patterns might only serve as a diversion from the real issue of how to restore stability and deliver a credible and legitimate government.

Fakur says the two candidates are "moving toward a clash" and "are not agreeing on any framework" on how to move forward. This, he says, is because both are reluctant to concede to anything that might lessen their respective chances of winning and, in turn, put them at risk of losing their political standing.

For the people of Afghanistan, I think, Dr. Abdullah is a symbol of yesterday's Afghanistan and Karzai is a symbol of today's Afghanistan.
"Everything that led to their agreement, reconciliation, and possible solution pleased people," Fakur says. "But when their disagreements lead to tension and paralysis, it increases the concerns of the people. One reason for popular optimism in Kabul is that they are grateful that in the presence of international forces the political crisis would not morph into fighting."

In a country where recent history has been shaped by foreign invasions and regional competition played out by armed proxies, the idea of a peaceful transfer of power through elections has not gained currency among Afghan politicians and factional leaders.

With the Western media's focus on the threats posed by extremists, little attention has been paid to the importance of understanding the complexities of Afghan politics.

Fakur suggests that though Karzai might eventually win enough votes to be reelected, it won't necessarily mean that he can deliver a strong, credible government. Given Afghanistan's unique situation, in which insurgents control large swathes of territory, Fakur suggests that Karzai will need to reach a compromise with Abdullah and other figures who oppose him.

"The conditions in Afghanistan are such that NATO, the Americans, and our neighbors have their interests here. And we need to tailor our interests to their strategies," Fakur says. "If we keep on stirring Afghan sentiments against the international community and work to bring about a government here that clashes with the international community, it won't help. Such a situation will move toward crisis, and this is the basic problem."

Fakur suggests that apart from the internal dynamics, the lead-up to the runoff is being shaped by the acts of the international community, and the Afghans' perceptions of those acts.

He says that Karzai wants to show Afghans that he stood up to international pressure to remove him from power. And Abdullah, Fakur says, saw opportunity in Karzai's differences with the West, resulting in the demands he made ahead of the runoff.

No Compromise

Afghan parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai, who now supports Karzai in the runoff, rules out the possibility of a compromise between the two and wants Afghan voters to decide their future leader.

She suggests that despite Karzai's alliance with many notorious Afghan strongmen, the electorate is likely to reelect him because he is not associated with the internecine conflict of the 1990s, when anti-Soviet factions destroyed Kabul and other cities in their rapacious civil war. Abdullah was a senior aide to late Afghan guerilla leader Ahmed Shah Masoud in the 1990s when the Afghan capital was destroyed in factional fighting between Masoud and other factions of the anti-Soviet mujahedin.

"For the people of Afghanistan, I think, Dr. Abdullah is a symbol of yesterday's Afghanistan and Karzai is a symbol of today's Afghanistan," Barakzai says. "And Afghans won't like to go back to the dark days of our recent past. It is because if we go back to the past, we will give away our present."

Hajji Sayed Daud, who heads the Afghan Media Resource Center in Kabul, is well-acquainted with public opinion and popular thinking. He tells RFE/RL that deal-making and the fact that Karzai controls the government machinery will ensure his victory on November 7.

But he sees the rival sides as pushing the Afghan electorate toward ethnic fragmentation. Karzai, a Pashtun, and Abdullah, a Tajik-Pashtun, each received support that crossed ethnic and regional boundaries. But the mutual accusations of fraud that followed the first round at times developed ethnic undertones, with hawks from Karzai's side portraying themselves as protectors of Pashtuns, and hawks from Abdullah's side as protectors of Tajiks.

Daud sees the growth of such sentiments in the run-up to the runoff as a bad omen for the future of democracy and stability in his country.

"In the regions where Pashtuns live, they are being motivated to vote for a Pashtun. And regions where other ethnicities -- Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen, Hazara -- live, they are being told that the Pashtuns want to cling to the leadership," Daud says.

"In my opinion, voting based on ethnicity moves Afghanistan toward destruction, civil war, and division. It is the duty of both candidates not to exploit such issues. But unfortunately, both Karzai and Dr. Abdullah are engaging in this now."

Daud suggests that to solve the governance crisis, disillusioned Afghans might prefer a traditional Loya Jirga, or grand assembly of elders, who would form an interim government and prepare ground for holding free and fair elections.

In an interview with RFE/RL last week, former UN and EU special envoy for Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell suggested a similar solution.

Given its investment in the elections and the political process, the international community is solely focused on holding the November 7 runoff.

But if even a successful election process fails to deliver an efficient and credible administration, alternative solutions can be expected to gain currency among Afghan politicians and Western policy makers.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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