Dispute Over Timing of Afghan Vote Turns Messy
Conflict Raises Concern About Prospects for Besieged Democracy

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 5, 2009

KABUL, March 4 -- A deepening power struggle over the date for upcoming presidential elections is exposing the underside of politics in Afghanistan and raising questions about the viability of a crucial transition for this struggling, Western-backed democracy.

The conflict pits President Hamid Karzai, who hopes to win reelection after seven years in power, against an array of rivals eager to see him dethroned at any cost, and against members of an independent election commission whose desire to postpone the polling is supported by the United States, the United Nations and NATO.

It also leaves unresolved the critical question of who will lead the country during the summer months, when the Islamist Taliban insurgency is expected to intensify its attacks and thousands of American troops will arrive. Karzai's term ends in May, and elections are currently scheduled for August.

Karzai, 51, once perceived as a charming leader and famous for wowing tribal elders and international conferences, has grown increasingly unpopular and remote as his government becomes tarred as weak and corrupt. In recent months, he has taken to lashing out at the U.S.-led NATO forces that battle the Taliban and help prop up his government.

Now, he is crossing swords with the election commission he once appointed, resisting its decision to postpone elections from spring to late summer even though officials and observers widely agree that bad weather, poor security and other factors make it virtually impossible to hold credible polls this spring.

On Wednesday, the commission announced it was sticking to its earlier plan to hold the presidential election Aug. 20, defying a decree issued by Karzai last week that effectively ordered the polls held before he is scheduled to leave office in May. Critics say Karzai's support for the earlier date is designed to deprive opponents of the time they need to campaign across a country where the rough terrain makes travel difficult, and where few politicians besides Karzai can boast nationwide name recognition. Karzai, meanwhile, would be able to campaign while enjoying the full advantages of incumbency.

"We know the election date is a hot potato," commission chairman Azizullah Ludin said at a news conference. "Everyone in the world is watching this election carefully. We want it to be acceptable to the people and to international norms." Under current circumstances, he added, "the implementation of this decree is not possible."

In a sign of international concern over the Afghan election crisis, the State Department and the U.N. special representative here issued swift statements welcoming the election commission's reaffirmation of its election date decision. "The holding of elections is of paramount importance for consolidating democracy in Afghanistan," said Kai Eide, the U.N. representative.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said U.S. officials called on Afghan leaders to find a constitutional way to "ensure the continuity, legitimacy and stability of the government" between May and August.

The Obama administration has taken a much cooler view of Karzai than the Bush administration, which paid relatively little attention to such problems as corruption and drug trafficking as long as the Kabul government was cooperating with the U.S. military in the war against terrorism. Obama, in contrast, has publicly described Karzai's government as corrupt, avoided speaking with him for weeks and finally confronted Karzai in a phone call about his frequent complaints over civilian casualties at the hands of coalition forces and air raids.

Technically, the election dispute is being couched in legal terms and polite language. Ludin said the commission respected Karzai's position, which follows the letter of the constitution, but he noted dryly that "there was silence for eight months" and then a sudden flurry of concern from Karzai's office over whether an August election would create a constitutional crisis by leaving the presidency in limbo for three months.

Politically, though, the knives are out. Some of Karzai's adversaries, a hodgepodge of former militia leaders, ethnic rivals and cabinet members who defected from his administration, once vehemently opposed delaying elections as an unconstitutional ploy for Karzai to extend his time in office. But late Wednesday, a group of them said they backed the commission's decision -- now that the president was on the other side.

Spokesmen for Karzai had no immediate comment on the election crisis late Wednesday. A news conference by the president was announced Tuesday, presumably to discuss the election, but then canceled at the last minute.

At the moment, it is far from clear whether Karzai will step down when his term ends or seek to remain in office through August, possibly by declaring a limited state of emergency, which would allow him to campaign as an incumbent with all the advantages of state power. Proposals to install an interim caretaker government have gone nowhere.

But it was clear from the comments of election commission members and others in political circles late Wednesday that no one expected the president to simply acquiesce to the commission's defiant stand.

"We are a new democracy, and this election may be our only major accomplishment," said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Political Investigation. "If Karzai doesn't seek an honorable and dignified exit from power, and if we don't have credible elections and a peaceful transition, it will be a terrible setback. What can we do, send in the troops?"

Karzai loyalists depict him not as a politician clinging to power but as a leader who has faced enormous conflicting pressures and has tried to act as a unifying figure, only to be undermined by his foreign allies and sabotaged by a culture of tribal factionalism at home. They say his powerful opponents in parliament have stymied many initiatives out of pique but offered no constructive alternatives.

"At a time like this, we need to seek consensus and unity. Unfortunately, we are continuing the fragmented political culture of the past," Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said in an interview Wednesday night. He noted that many Afghans, once enthusiastic about rebuilding their country after the Taliban were driven from power in 2001, are now disillusioned by the destructive atmosphere that pervades politics. "I am afraid if this continues, it will lead to real instability," he said.

The security situation is already tenuous: A suicide bomber wounded three civilians Wednesday in an attack just outside the main gate of Bagram air base, the primary U.S. military facility in Afghanistan. Military officials said the man drove a vehicle to a parking lot where drivers gather outside the base and then left it. Both the bomber and the car exploded. The three wounded men were working for a U.S. company, but their names and nationalities were not released.

Critics point out that Karzai, a seemingly moderate and Western-leaning leader for the past seven years, has increasingly contributed to the poisonous mood by pandering to nationalist, religious and anti-foreign sentiments in hopes of winning electoral points.

But others, who had criticized Karzai for being indecisive and unwilling to make tough decisions, praised his recent demand to suddenly move the elections forward, noting that even though it would create myriad electoral difficulties, it was legally proper and would preclude a constitutional crisis.

"He did the right thing, but it was too late," said Shukria Barakzai, a liberal member of parliament from Kabul. "Everyone knows there is no way to hold the elections so quickly, but we need to find a political solution to this crisis because it is killing our young democracy."

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