Karzai: Top election official will keep job

By Joshua Partlow and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 26, 2009; 12:31 PM

KABUL -- The challenger to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday called for the removal of the head of Afghanistan's election commission, the suspension of cabinet ministers, the removal of an unspecified number of provincial police chiefs, and the closure of some 500 polling stations as his conditions for participation in the runoff election scheduled for Nov. 7.

Abdullah Abdullah gave Karzai five days to comply with his list of demands -- which aides said would include about 17 points in total -- but he remained coy about whether he would boycott the vote if these were not met. "I reserve my reaction if we are faced with that unfortunate situation," he said.

The sweeping set of demands -- particularly the suspension of the cabinet ministers, some of Karzai's closest allies -- struck even some of Abdullah's advisers as unrealistic. Maulvi Ghulam Mohammad Gharib, a human rights official from Kandahar and an adviser to Abdullah, said it seemed "impossible these conditions could be met."

Karzai issued a statement after Abdullah's news conference that said he would not oust the head of the Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, who has denied that he was partial to Karzai during the Aug. 20 vote and has refused to step down. Karzai also said he would not make any changes to his cabinet.

Abdullah has accused several government officials of inappropriately campaigning for Karzai or otherwise orchestrating the fraud that discredited the first round. He also wants the closure of hundreds of "ghost" polling stations, where security problems prevented monitors from overseeing the vote and where investigators say much of the fraud originated.

Abdullah, a former foreign minister, said the changes were intended to avoid the extensive fraud of the first round and were the "minimum conditions for having transparent and credible" elections.

Some Western officials interpreted Abdullah's latest move as a clever tactic that could bolster his position regardless of how he chose to proceed. If he does intend to participate in the runoff, this could help level the playing field if even some of his conditions were accepted. If he wants to avoid the contest and strike a deal with Karzai to form a coalition government, this show of strength could strengthen his negotiating position. Still, if Abdullah withdraws from the race, several western officials said Karzai would likely win by default.

"He is psychologically facing down his opponent," said one United Nations official in Kabul. "A lot of these requests are basically reasonable in terms of leveling the playing field, but it doesn't mean the government is going to accept them."

In recent days, Abdullah's main running matehas said that it was clear that the United States and the international community would resist such a boycott but that it might be necessary if the commission is not purged of its prominent Karzai supporters.

"Lots of our international friends won't be happy. We will have them on our backs," Homayoun Shah Assefy, the running mate, said in an interview. "But for the interest of our country, is a rigged and controversial election better than boycotting the election? I think the second."

Abdullah told Fox News on Sunday said that if his conditions are not met, there will not be a credible election "and it will be very difficult to convince the people to turn out and to show up."

Abdullah has not made his final decision, his aides said, and the tactics in this political duel seem to be shifting daily, if not hourly. This penchant for brinkmanship by both candidates is exasperating Western diplomats searching for some legitimate resolution that will yield a credible Afghan partner. Karzai, who claimed that he won the first round with a majority, submitted to a runoff only after intense pressure by Western diplomats forced him to abide by the constitution. Assefy said the first round made clear that neither candidate can "run this country alone" and that if Karzai is willing to "accept some idea of reform," a coalition government is possible.

"I think what you're seeing here is Abdullah sees the writing on the wall, that he's likely to lose a runoff. Now is the time for him to strike a deal if there is any chance of one," said one U.N. official in Kabul. "From the Karzai campaign, we're seeing a hardening of their position and a determination to proceed to a runoff, whatever the implications of that may be."

Aides to Karzai said Sunday that they were extremely concerned about the reports that Abdullah might drop out of the race.

"If he withdraws, it will deepen the political crisis and deepen the lack of legitimacy for both him and the government," Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said in an interview Sunday. "We cannot reverse the process that has been started to restore legitimacy to the election process. If we don't have a real election, it will not be good for Afghanistan."

Abdullah met with U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry on Sunday. Eikenberry "did not encourage or discourage Dr. Abdullah from running," one U.S. official said. "That is Abdullah's choice."

"The United States continues to support election preparations and encourage all parties to work towards a legitimate outcome," the official said.

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