Karzai Skips Afghanistan's First Televised Presidential Debate

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 24, 2009

KABUL, July 24 -- Afghanistan's first-ever televised presidential debate took place as scheduled in prime time Thursday night, but it was marred by the glaring absence of the central figure in the race: incumbent Hamid Karzai.

Karzai, who is seeking reelection Aug. 20 after seven years in power, declined to participate, citing a variety of reasons. His office issued a statement saying he had been notified too late, thought the host channel was biased against him and wanted more of his 40 challengers to participate.

As a result, Karzai's two major challengers -- former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani -- were left without a target as they stood behind twin lecterns on a brightly lighted, American-style debate set, while a third lectern stood pointedly empty between them.

The two men, both polished and experienced public figures, offered few major substantive differences during two hours of questions. Ghani offered more detailed proposals to stimulate the economy, and Abdullah proposed changing the presidential system of government to a parliamentary one.

But the debate, broadcast by the private Tolo network in the two national languages, Pashto and Dari, marked a historic moment for Afghanistan. A country of impoverished villages, deep Muslim faith and entrenched tribal traditions, it is just beginning to emerge from decades of war and repression to test the waters of an unfamiliar, modern democracy -- including the role of the independent electronic media.

Moreover, the event offered viewers and listeners an unprecedented look at two important public figures and potential national leaders with sharply contrasting styles. Karzai is still favored to garner the most votes in the first round of voting, but analysts have predicted that the growing challenge from Abdullah and Ghani could force a second round.

Abdullah, wearing a dark blue suit and tie, was measured and diplomatic. He largely refrained from criticizing Karzai and tended to speak in platitudes about the need for peace and reconciliation, government responsiveness and popular power. He also echoed widespread public concern over civilian casualties during airstrikes and home searches by foreign troops fighting Taliban insurgents.

"People feel alienated from the central government, and our enemies take advantage of that," Abdullah said. Because of abuses and bombings by U.S. and NATO forces stationed here, he added, "people have started to hate the foreign troops."

Ghani, clad in a traditional white cape and tunic, was acerbic and provocative. Despite the host's request for fairness to the absent president, Ghani attacked Karzai's administration at every turn, decrying governors and mayors as channels for bribery and the national police as badly disorganized.

"The Interior Ministry doesn't know even how many police there are in Kabul," he said. "Dear people, ask yourselves if your lives have gotten any better in the past eight years."

Before the debate, both candidates criticized Karzai for refusing to participate, saying he was afraid to expose himself to the spotlight after seven years of increasingly unpopular and corrupt rule. The president has done virtually no campaigning in public, instead relying for support on a network of businessmen, former militia leaders and tribal elders.

Some observers said Karzai's reluctance to appear was a major political blunder, making him seem more aloof than ever after years of increasing isolation from the public and tensions with his Western backers, including the United States. They said he could no longer assume that the backing of regional strongmen would translate into a popular victory.

But other analysts said Karzai might have scored some points in absentia by calling for the participation of more minor candidates and for the debate to be broadcast on more TV channels. Tolo plans two more presidential debates, and Thursday night's host said he hoped Karzai would participate.

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