By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 13, 2009
KABUL -- His portrait adorns giant billboards in every corner of the capital: hugging a child, making a speech and smiling serenely atop comforting platitudes about progress and peace.
But the real Hamid Karzai, president of the Islamic republic of Afghanistan and candidate for reelection Aug. 20, is nowhere to be seen.
Since the official campaign began last month, his aides said, more than 50 rallies have been organized by supporters across the country, but he has not yet attended one. Television stations have proposed debates among Karzai and his major rivals, but he has demurred, saying certain conditions need to be established first.
"The president is not afraid to debate anyone, but we have concerns that the other candidates do not know the principles of conversation. A debate should not be a battlefield," Ahmad Omar, a spokesman for Karzai's campaign, said at a news conference last week. Omar also said Karzai would appear at some campaign rallies soon.
Thus far, however, the president has been relying on his relationships with tribal elders, business leaders and an array of former militia commanders to secure victory. Meanwhile, U.N. officials and human rights groups have charged that government officials across the country are improperly using their offices and influence to bolster his campaign.
Until very recently, the conventional wisdom among pollsters, pundits and the public was that Karzai would easily garner the 50.01 percent of votes he needs to win in the first round of polling, despite his declining popularity at home and increasingly testy relations with allies abroad. But in the past several weeks, that presumption has begun to change.
Although none of Karzai's major challengers is expected to defeat him outright Aug. 20, several election observers said they may do well enough as a group to force a second round of polling, partly because of recent blunders by Karzai and partly because many Afghans are looking for alternative leadership at a time of sustained insurgent violence, economic stagnation and political drift.
"If Karzai loses the first round, his spell will be broken," said one businessman who follows the political winds closely. "Even his own advisers are worried that the campaign is not going well and that his top opponents are gaining momentum." Karzai's chief rivals are two ex-aides, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.
According to private accounts of a recent meeting among Karzai's senior aides and backers, many expressed concern over the slow and disorganized campaign, the recent defection of a crucial governor to Abdullah's camp, and a series of high-profile meetings between the U.S. ambassador and several opposition candidates, which Karzai denounced in public .
To a large extent, the president has been relying on the weaknesses and divisions within the opposition, which proved unable to field a strong consensus candidate. Now 40 people are vying to oust Karzai, who has been in power for more than seven years, but none is especially charismatic. Ghani, the only candidate who has articulated a detailed vision for the country, is a technocrat with little patience for politicking.
The president, a charming schmoozer and master political juggler, has also cemented his ties with a variety of powerful Afghans, reportedly promising cabinet posts, governorships and even newly created provinces in exchange for their support. Local business leaders said Karzai's administration has "facilitated" their success by keeping taxes low and offering other incentives.
"All the people you see here have a lot of money they didn't have seven or eight years ago," said construction magnate Shuja Dawalah while attending a recent campaign reception organized by the Afghan Chamber of Commerce. He said Karzai had done much to develop the economy and possessed "more qualifications" than others to lead the country.
But lately, Karzai has been shooting himself in the foot. His repeated anti-American outbursts have raised eyebrows, as did his pardon of several convicted drug traffickers from an influential tribe, based on what his spokesman said was "respect for their families." His electoral alliances with militia leaders from the past have disappointed a fast-growing younger generation of educated voters hoping for change.
There have also been complaints of local government officials using their resources to assist Karzai's campaign and their muscle to intimidate opponents, despite a presidential decree prohibiting such behavior. In a joint report last week, the U.N. advisory mission and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said they had received numerous reports of state interference in the election process.
"The president may not be directly aware of these incidents, but many local authorities are eager to win his favor," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, an official with the commission. He cited a case last week in which district officials in Baghlan province complained of being instructed by the governor, a Karzai appointee, to bring 100 people each to a rally for the president -- and to tell each of those 100 to bring 15 others.
At the same time, Karzai appears to have alienated a key governor. Mohammed Atta, a former militia leader who has done much to modernize northern Balkh province in the past several years, recently announced that he was switching his support to Abdullah, dealing a blow to Karzai's campaign in a crucial region.
Meanwhile, much of the south, Karzai's home base and the core of his Pashtun ethnic constituency, is in the grip of Taliban terror. Many candidates for regional office have been threatened, and despite plans to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers and police to provide election-day security, there are predictions that voters in southern population centers such as Kandahar will stay home for fear of attacks.
The president still enjoys pockets of genuine support across the country, especially in rural areas that have felt the benefits of foreign aid and improved governance on his watch. Moreover, several of his powerful allies are expected to deliver hundreds of thousands of votes each, especially among minorities such as ethnic Hazaras and Uzbeks.
But with more and more Afghans tuned into independent TV and radio, going to school and learning what it means to have individual rights, the benefits of incumbency, patronage, name recognition and powerful friends may no longer be enough to guarantee Karzai the easy victory he once seemed assured of.
"I voted for Mr. Karzai last time, but I haven't made up my mind yet this time," said Ghulam Fareed, 30, a security guard who rides his bicycle to work each morning past the gleaming mansions of Kabul's nouveau riche. "The people are suffering, and we are still looking for someone who will speak for us."