22 October 2009

Fear factors into figuring out next fortnight

The Kabul River is reduced to a thin stream slipping through a trashed-out channel between these stone walls in the middle of the city. The hubbub of everyday commerce continues in the face of increased violence and the virtual certainty of a second-round presidential runoff election on Nov. 7, despite logistical and security problems.

KABUL, Afghanistan—President Hamid Karzai was probably cursing his fate earlier this week when the formal recount of the flawed August election week revealed he failed to capture a majority of the vote, though he came ever so close with 49.7 percent.

Many Afghans don’t want a second round. They didn’t trust the first round and for good reason: an estimated one third of the votes were fraudulent. They see no reason to think the second round will be any better. And so far the international election monitoring groups have been unwilling to promise any improvements.

The expectation is there will be more election-day violence by the Taliban and other enemies of the state. (It’s hard to keep all these gangs of men with guns straight.) In August, at least two voters who had a finger stained with ink to prevent them from voting a second time (and proof they voted the first time) had them removed, allegedly by Taliban members. Others lost their lives. It will also be winter in the some parts of the mountainous nation next month.

There is fear of conflict between Pashtuns and Tajiks, the two largest ethnic groups. Karzai’s opponent is Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik, who are mostly from the north. Karzai named a Tajik and an ethnic Uzbek to his executive team in the hope of preventing an opposition based solely on identity. However, many Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, say they voted reluctantly and sometimes at great personal risk for their corrupt kinsman, Karzai, but won’t do it again a fortnight from now.

Karzai has been trying to craft himself as an anti-western nationalist, which is a popular horse to ride in the court of public opinion here. The irony, of course, is that he has been dogged his entire presidency by the claim that he is the stooge delivered, installed and funded by the U.S. and NATO.

Karzai acknowledged the fraud in the first round and wanted to, well, just ignore it. The unspoken assumption was, Have you forgotten what country we’re talking about here? That plays here well too because many Afghans have very modest expectations for the political system imposed by the West. One particularly lovely incongruency: The culture of Afghanistan is unapologetically patriarchal, yet the national constitution requires that 25 percent of the parliament is women, a ratio that has never been approached in the U.S. Congress.

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