It could be weeks before the Afghan elections give the country a new Head of State. A low turnout, upcoming reports of “clear and convincing” evidence of fraud according to the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), threats of ethnic division and Taliban-sponsored sporadic violence all symbolize the confusion Afghanistan is dealing with at the present time. It could be weeks, yet there is little doubt about the outcome of this popular consultation: the re-election of Hamid Karzai for another term.
The last partial results given by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) acknowledged 54.1 per cent of the ballots cast to President Karzai, while his most serious opponent, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, has received 28.3 per cent out of the 91.6 per cent of the total votes counted so far. Although President Karzai maintains that the IEC must hold the elections with “honesty and impartiality,” questions on the neutrality of the IEC remain since Karzai nominated his former adviser Azizullah Lodin chairman of the IEC. The Afghan electorate is thus dealing with a rather bizarre situation, where one commission is proclaiming that Karzai is most likely to maintain his grip over the country, and another entity – namely the ECC – insisting on the fact that more than 726 serious fraud allegations are still under investigation.
It is common knowledge that Hamid Karzai ran a disastrous campaign, if any campaign at all. While the Tajik former aide to Ahmed Shah Massoud Abdullah campaigned all over the country, up to the dangerous Pashtun area of Kandahar, Karzai limited his involvement to small scale interventions in empty arenas and convention halls in Kabul. This despite his Pashtun lineage. It is then not surprising to see Abdullah competing with a Karzai unlikely to win with the large mandate he enjoyed in the 2004 Presidential elections (which he won with an overwhelming 54 per cent of the vote). The weak Karzai campaign adds confusion to the partial results given by the IEC.
The reason Karzai maintained his leadership and is leading the polls is because of his campaign - disastrous and successful all at the same time. Afghanistan is about ethnicity and the refusal to acknowledge any authority: this is why the Mujahideen could not save themselves from themselves, and tore apart Afghanistan though they ended up victorious in the war against the Soviets. Karzai cleverly multiplied alliances with political leaders from different ethnic origins, trying to attract both Tajiks and Hazaras – accounting respectively for about 35 and 10 per cent of the total population – by appointing Mohammad Fahim and Karim Khalili as his running mates. He most especially recruited former controversial warlords, such as the Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum – accused of war crimes by Amnesty – and the Pashtun Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – former mentor to Bin Laden – whose name inspired the Philippine terrorist movement renamed after him.
This did not prevent Abdullah to come back in the race, so successfully that it has raised the spectrum of a second round. Karzai had been warned by the US administration not to claim victory before any official results, and the possibility of a run-off was suggested by US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, during a meeting with Karzai in late August. In fact, the clash that followed suited Karzai well. His campaign team appeared eager to deliver the news to the press soon after the meeting. Indeed, Karzai’s tone has become increasingly nationalist during the campaign – a characteristic extending beyond just this particular anecdote.
As a disagreement exists between the IEC and the EEC regarding the range of the fraud, the Afghan President wants to convince the Afghans that the UN backed EEC represents foreign interests. While Karzai once proudly claimed to be Washington’s man, he is now ready to expunge his former allegiance against the Tajik Abdullah, accused by Karzai’s team to be willing to tear apart the country for his personal interests. Having never been quite popular, Karzai is trying his hand at populism. The truth is he does not have much of a choice, for the several alliances he made with local warlords have considerably reduced his leeway regarding the US and NATO forces. A move that suits Pakistan well, as Karzai no longer blames Islamabad for the situation in Afghanistan. President Zardari has already stated that he did not doubt Karzai’s victory.
What next? The election process might still be in its early stages, but the Afghan President seems happy to disregard the fact. Truth is that the outcome is known to everyone - Karzai is most likely to be re-elected, no matter how. Neither the US nor the coalition forces have the means to impose their will on a fractious Afghan President, bound to his new problematic allies, less willing to listen to the military and apparently at ease with his influential neighbour. Throughout history, Afghanistan has always been reluctant to see any foreign power establish its dominion over the country. By playing on the nationalist sentiment, Karzai is showing the US he too has a sense for Realpolitik. In the end, as the reporter for the French journal Libération Jean-Pierre Perrin puts it, Karzai “has no vision, [but the] international community has even less.”