Karzai holds head high as nation turns to runoff

By Pamela Constable
Monday, October 26, 2009

KABUL -- Just over a week ago, Afghan President Hamid Karzai looked like a cornered captive. Forced to disavow an election he believed he had won, and to announce this concession on a dais crowded with Western officials, Karzai -- usually charming and cagey in public -- seemed edgy and grim.

Now, the Cheshire Cat is back.

According to his aides and political confidants, Karzai has rebounded from the evident humiliation of that moment and now sees himself as a statesman who helped save Afghan democracy. They describe him as both comfortable with his decision to accept a runoff election with rival Abdullah Abdullah on Nov. 7 and confident that he will win.

Although Karzai has made no public appearances and does not plan to hold any large campaign rallies in the days before the scheduled vote, aides said he is now energized by the prospect of a new election that can legitimize his fraud-tainted victory. They said he is even considering a proposal for a televised debate with Abdullah.

"He did this for the future of Afghanistan, to restore the legitimacy of the process. It was very presidential of him," said Waheed Omar, Karzai's campaign spokesman. After the tension that led up to his decision, Omar said, Karzai relaxed. "He felt he had done the right thing and closed a chapter." Now, the aide said, Karzai has "instructed all of us to put our efforts into getting people to come out and vote."

In recent press statements and in a palace interview with CNN, Karzai has been both evasive and magnanimous. While refusing to explicitly acknowledge the massive fraud that helped him claim over 54 percent of the vote on Aug. 20, he has called for a "more transparent and responsive" election this time. And while rejecting any pre-election deal with Abdullah, he has promised to build a more "inclusive" government if reelected.

Karzai is widely expected to win the runoff, in large part because voters from his ethnic Pashtun tribe, faced with a choice between him and an opponent identified with rival ethnic minorities, will side with Karzai. More than 35 other candidates ran in the Aug. 20 election, including prominent Pashtuns such as former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, who came in fourth.

A second reason many Afghans are convinced Karzai will prevail is that he is now seen as the American candidate. Although there is widespread resentment here toward U.S. and NATO troops, such presumed U.S. backing would strengthen his hand because Afghans -- conflict survivors accustomed to deferring to elders and strongmen -- tend to support political sure bets.

Over the past year, Karzai's relations with Washington have become increasingly chilly, marred by issues of Afghan corruption and civilian war casualties. American officials repeatedly denied they had any favorite in the race, but aides said Karzai became convinced the United States was trying to undermine his victory by pressing him on the issue of election fraud.

U.S. officials have cast their support for a runoff strictly as the legally and constitutionally correct thing to do. But many Afghans believe Karzai accepted the runoff because U.S. officials assured him he would win. The thinking here is that despite his flaws, U.S. and NATO officials viewed him as the more reliable partner in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

"Everyone sees this as a deal between Washington and Karzai to save the political process," said analyst Haroun Mir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies. Now that Karzai is convinced he will win, Mir added, "he is pushing and pushing for a runoff that he strongly resisted."

The Taliban factor

Karzai is seen as likely to benefit from the current lull in Taliban insurgent attacks. Although the militia has warned voters not to go the polls, and there are fears that its fighters will attempt to sabotage the polling, many Taliban are said to have retreated to Pakistan because of the onset of winter weather in Afghanistan.

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