At the President's Service

In the lead-up to the presidential elections in Afghanistan on 20 August, incumbent Hamid Karzai is regarded as the front-runner – not least because he has secured the allegiance of influential warlords, governors and tribal elders. Martin Gerner reports from Kabul

Election poster of Hamid Karzai (photo: AP)
Omnipresent all over the country: despite international criticism of his policies and the rampant underground economy, Karzai is likely to be re-elected on 20 August.

​​ "We are observing increasing irregularities", reports Jandand Spinghar, managing director of FEFA, the sole independent election monitoring organisation in Afghanistan.

Spinghar believes that the independent Afghan election commission is in reality an organ serving President Karzai – a criticism also voiced by international observers.

"In a number of provinces in the Pashtun East and South of the country, voters have received several registration cards. In some case three times as many women are entered in the rolls as actually live there", according to Spinghar. Many minors have also been deliberately registered to vote.

Omnipresent president

This criticism leaves the chairman of the Afghan election commission, Azizullah Lodin, cold. He is considered an out-and-out backer of President Karzai. The President has issued a decree denying all his 40 challengers any support from state authorities and services during the election period.

But Karzai himself blithely uses the government apparatus and the media as tools in his own campaign. His all-pervasive countenance, staring down from posters on streets throughout the country, is suffocating. And several provincial governors are supporting his campaign efforts.

Although broad sections of the electorate in Kabul and in the countryside have vehemently denounced Karzai and his politics, his devotees believe that he is the sole guarantor of good relations with the international community. Only he can procure the necessary foreign aid for Afghanistan, they say.

Since the US government has ceased its public criticism of Karzai, it looks as if the donor countries have already prepared themselves for his re-election or have at least resigned themselves to it.

Divide and rule

Even before the campaign went into its hottest phase, Karzai had already forged numerous agreements with influential warlords, governors, party chiefs and tribal elders, promising them greater political weight in return – should he be re-elected.

Afghans in front of election poster in Kabul (photo: Martin Gerner)
Weeks before the presidential elections, incumbent Hamid Karzai is viewed as the clear front-runner. The 40 other candidates – including two women – can at best hope that he will fail to obtain a majority, necessitating a runoff.

​​ Nevertheless, Karzai does not appear to be all that sure of himself. If one is to believe the accounts of EU observers, both Karzai and the man who is considered his toughest rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, are trying to buy the support of tribal elders with bribes of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. As a rule, the elders' recommendation of a candidate is seen as binding for members of the clan.

The greatest hurdle, however, is the tense security situation, making it uncertain in many areas whether people will actually dare to come to the polls. The government no longer wields any authority in many of the 100 election districts, which are often either wholly or partially under the control of insurgents. In addition, the Taliban have threatened reprisals against anyone trying to cast a ballot.

In the Taliban's sights

The state election commission has promised up to 20 bodyguards for each of the 41 presidential candidates. But thousands of candidates for the provincial council elections the same day are responsible for their own safety. "Without protection, I'm an easy target for the Taliban," a candidate from Helmand Province recently complained.

It's also unclear whether the military offensive by the US Army and NATO forces will deliver the promised security for the presidential elections. Jandand Spinghar predicts that many people will stay at home in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Paktika. The latest battles in the northern Kunduz region, in which German ISAF contingents are taking part, are also likely to deter potential voters.

Parliament members in Kabul and staff of the UN Human Rights Commission (photo: AP)
Protest against authoritarian rule: parliament members in Kabul and staff of the UN Human Rights Commission have repeatedly accused President Karzai of abusing his office.

​​ "Assistance by foreign military forces is coming much too late to ensure a safe environment", says Jandad Spinghar. "Wherever these forces do show up, they secure the terrain only for hours or days at a time. And then they're gone again, and the populace is even more at the mercy of the rebels."

In Mazar, site of the central warehouse of the German army and the NATO troops, a member of the Afghan election commission was recently shot to death. In view of these conditions, many presidential candidates are refraining from touring the provinces.

Lethargy widespread

Few of the candidates have an actual platform to run on. One exception is ex-foreign minister Abdullah, a Tajik and an ophthalmologist by training, who advocates a changeover from a presidential to a parliamentary system. Another is Ashraf Ghani, former finance minister under Karzai and today his critic, who wants to create thousands of new jobs. His campaign has been deliberately appealing to wealthy Afghan expatriates and to women for support.

Just like in Germany, political weariness is widespread in Afghanistan, due in this case to lack of security and to rampant corruption, threatening the fragile fledgling democracy there.

A Kabul taxi driver curses the government: "Karzai and his regime do not serve the people," he says. "They work only for their own benefit. Just look at the potholes in these streets. We pay taxes, but why doesn't the money go toward improving the infrastructure?"

Karzai's candidates for the office of Vice President are Uzbek General Rashid Dostum and Karim Khalili, both of whom have been charged with numerous human rights violations. The Obama administration even maintains that Dostum should be brought before the UN Tribunal at The Hague.

Martin Gerner

© 2009
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