By Joshua Partlow and Pamela Constable
Sunday, October 25, 2009
KABUL -- President Hamid Karzai's team shifted aggressively into campaign mode Saturday and ruled out any possibility of a power-sharing deal with challenger Abdullah Abdullah ahead of a runoff election in two weeks.
"In our view there is no alternative to a second round. This is the only constitutional way to establish a new government" and "put an end to the current crisis," said Karzai's campaign spokesman, Wahid Omar, at a news conference. "All our energy is now focused on preparations for the second round."
Abdullah, however, has renewed concerns about the credibility of the Independent Election Commission and wants its leadership replaced before the Nov. 7 vote, according to officials in his campaign. He does not want a repeat of the rampant electoral fraud found in the August first round -- much of it favoring Karzai. Abdullah fears nothing will change unless officials he considers loyal to Karzai are removed, the sources said.
"We want to go to the second round, but provided that there are some conditions, especially to remove some of these figures from the so-called Independent Election Commission," said Ahmad Wali Massoud, a close ally of Abdullah's. "So long as these people are not being removed from the commission, I don't think we are going to have a free and fair election, because they were the main ones responsible for the rigging and fraud."
Abdullah is seeking the removal of the commission's president, Azizullah Lodin, along with two members of the commission's secretariat. Lodin and other election-commission officials have denied they were partial toward Karzai and brushed aside Abdullah's concerns as the complaints of a sore loser.
At the news conference Saturday, Omar said Karzai's team had "no specific opinion" about Abdullah's demands, but that Karzai wants the second round to be "more transparent and responsive" than the first. To that end, he said, "we will support all measures . . . whatever it takes will be acceptable to us."
Omar said a variety of groups that endorsed Karzai the first time have renewed their commitment. He said there would be no large public campaign rallies, but that an aggressive media campaign would encourage people to vote. Karzai was considering a public debate with Abdullah, as proposed by the election commission, he said.
But the potential for a standoff over the election commission could further complicate a vote that will be difficult to execute even under the best circumstances. The Taliban issued a statement Saturday threatening more violence and warning Afghans not to vote in the runoff, which they called "a failed, American process," according to the Associated Press.
Snow and freezing weather could make voting impossible in some parts of the country. And many people say there is not enough time to replace and vet election officials to prevent fraud. Karzai initially received 54 percent of the vote, but nearly one-third of his votes were considered rigged and he finished with 49 percent.
"When you have a million-odd votes thrown out, you've got to ask yourself, what was the IEC doing and who is going to be held accountable?" said Saad Mohseni, an owner of a prominent media company in Afghanistan.
Election officials plan to reduce the number of polling places from about 6,300 to about 5,800 in an attempt to prevent fraud in volatile areas where votes were recorded at stations that never opened.
One senior Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media by name, said there was "way over a 50-50 chance" that the runoff would be held despite the potential problems.
The diplomat said many of Karzai's top aides think he is unable to make an advantageous deal because he is too weak politically and needs to first win the runoff to "enhance his stature." He also said the international community had been strongly united in its demand for Karzai to complete the legal election process and was not pushing him to make a pre-polling deal.
Diplomatic sources said Karzai hated the idea of a coalition government, in which he would have to share power with Abdullah. But Karzai left the door open to a "government of unity," formed after he presumably wins the runoff, in which he would still be president but with figures from Abdullah's camp and other factions playing major roles in the administration, the sources said.
"Karzai detests the idea of a solution like Kenya or Zimbabwe, with two drivers sharing the same car. What he does seem open to is a situation where he would still be top dog but there would significant changes below," said a United Nations official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "There is a subtle but important difference between the two things."
Sources said that if Abdullah were seeking a deal, he would demand substantive and structural changes in the government, perhaps over time. One of Abdullah's main campaign platforms was to change the government from a presidential system to a more decentralized parliamentary system, with governors and mayors elected rather than appointed, and with elections based on political party tickets rather than individuals.
But diplomats and other observers here said the runoff was now probably both inevitable and necessary to restore legitimacy to the election process before any deals can be struck.
"A coalition government might seem like a quick solution, but it's not in the constitution and it would never work politically. It would be like having a cart with two horses pulling in opposite directions," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, president of the Foundation for Free and Fair Elections. "Instead of a functioning government, it would produce a stalemate."
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.