KABUL — The sun was warm and the crowds were thick at the Kabul Zoo on Thursday. Families picnicked on the grassy grounds, strolled in their holiday finery and hoisted children to see the flamingos and monkeys in their wire-mesh enclosures.
While the international community sounded urgent alarms about the stalled and disputed Afghan presidential election — and a few officials held marathon meetings to get a suspended ballot audit back on track — everyone else in Afghanistan took the week off.
By chance, Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival that marks the end of Ramadan, began Monday, then segued Thursday into the weekly holiday that culminates with Friday prayers. Exhausted by the high-stakes electoral crisis that has dragged on for months, people were grateful for a respite from the tension and a chance to enjoy simple pleasures.
Even the two presidential rivals, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, took a break from acrimony this week and left for vacations abroad. With the vote audit on hold until Saturday, it seemed as if the entire political crisis had gone on leave.
Yet the carefree bustle in the capital barely masked the anger, anxiety and disillusionment that Afghans of all political views expressed this week. Every Afghan adult remembers the early 1990s, when the political order collapsed amid ethnic and religious violence that lasted a decade. On Thursday, many were clearly worried it could happen again.
“Everything has come to a standstill. Nobody is breathing, and nothing can move until we have a new president,” said Rahmatullah, a 50-year-old engineer who grew rich on international construction contracts that have now stopped dead.
“We all greet each other and say ‘Eid Mubarak’ [a blessed Eid], but then immediately we all start talking about the elections,” he said. “Will there be a winner? Will there be violence? Will we have a government at all?”
One Eid celebration went horribly wrong Tuesday, when Hashmat Karzai, a powerful cousin of outgoing President Hamid Karzai, was killed by a visitor who entered his home in Kandahar, offered him Eid greetings and exploded a bomb hidden in his tribal turban. The unsolved suicide assassination added an ominous note to the already tense political scenario.
At the jam-packed zoo Thursday, Afghans representing all walks of life and political affiliations — an army soldier, a college student, a house painter, a public administrator, a security guard — expressed deep concerns about the future, especially the fear that their country could spiral into wider violence and collapse if the election fails and a new government is not formed.
A few mentioned the Taliban, the southern Pashtun insurgents who continue to stage attacks that kill hundreds of Afghans and some Western troops every month. Others said they feared that the northern Tajik militias and other armed groups who back Abdullah might carry through on recent threats to form a parallel government by force if he is not declared the winner.
Many blamed both sides of the political power struggle for ruining a democratic exercise they desperately wanted to succeed. By accusing each other of fraud and refusing to accept the results of two rounds of voting, people said, the rivals are jeopardizing a rare chance to install democracy and ensure continued foreign support for their impoverished and long-conflicted land.
“I was really enthusiastic about the election, but now I am only confused and worried,” said Daulat Nazer, 35, a security guard who was watching a pond full of geese and flamingos with his wife and five children. “In a normal country, election results take a week or so, but this is taking months. If it keeps going this way, I fear we will be dragged into a new cycle of calamity, and nobody will ever vote again.”
The inauguration of the new president was supposed to take place Saturday, but experts say it could indeed be many weeks, even months, before a final winner is declared and sworn in or the joint national government proposed by U.S. officials can be formed.
Mohammed Agha, 24, an Afghan soldier in full uniform, watched two gray wolves pacing restlessly in a too-small enclosure. He said that his unit was based in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, and that it had suffered serious casualties while protecting voters during the two rounds of presidential polling April 5 and June 14.
“We lost men to safeguard those elections, and now we see no result and we feel very frustrated,” he said. “It feels like the politicians treated the voters like a tissue, something you use once and throw away.”
A civilian government worker named Sayed Qasim, who was with his two young sons outside the monkey enclosure, said the crisis had halted commerce and turned Afghanistan’s currency into a roller coaster, with prices rising and falling after every bit of good or bad political news on TV.
Despite their eagerness for a solution, several zoo visitors said they were far from convinced that the U.S.-brokered agreement between Ghani and Abdullah for some form of national unity government could work. Such an arrangement, they said, would leave the power balance unclear and the new government open to permanent infighting, rather than allowing things to stabilize.
One of the skeptics was a house painter named Amanullah, 24. He stopped to talk outside the empty, weed-filled pen that was once the home of the zoo’s most famous resident, Marjan the Lion. Years ago, Marjan was blinded when an enraged ethnic militiaman threw a grenade into his pen. Now long dead, Marjan is memorialized in a bronze statue at the zoo’s entrance.
“The problem in Afghanistan is that the losers never respect the winners,” Amanullah said. “Most of us citizens don’t really care whether Ghani or Abdullah wins, as long as we get one person in charge who can make decisions and rule the country. You cannot have two lions in one cage.”