Kabul draped in a veil of uncertainty
By Derek Henry Flood
KABUL - In the bazaars of Kabul, Afghans face an uncertain Ramadan season. As
most businesses close for iftaar, the breaking of the daily fast during
this Islamic holy month, food stalls and sweet shops light up to greet a rush
It's been a week since Afghanistan's presidential and provincial elections. As
results trickle in, the streets of Kabul are filled with an equal admixture of
uncertainty, doubt and resignation. No one is yet sure who will be the next
leader of Afghanistan, but the grind of everyday life must go on.
President Hamid Karzai, once a pliant pointman for Washington, has pulled out
of the Western orbit and gravitated toward regional
centers in Moscow, Delhi and Tehran. An overhaul of the Karzai power structure
would force the United States to forge a new diplomatic equation with his main
challenger, former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
Policymakers in Washington and Brussels worry that the current democratic
stalemate may present an opening for the Taliban, whose deadly pre-election
bombings and threats have terrified the nation. Many Afghans just want the
violence to end.
Sadiq runs a bright candy shop along the Kabul River. He didn't vote last week
because none of the candidates appealed to him. Still, he believes another
five-year term for Karzai is Afghanistan's best prospect.
"Look at the buildings that have been built [during Karzai's rule since
December 2004], it is much better than the mujahideen era [of the early 1990s].
We don't want to go back to that. Karzai is the best. If someone new is
elected, there may be a problem," Sadiq told Asia Times Online.
Like many bazaaris, Sadiq was reluctant to talk politics. Many insist they only
want a leader who is pro-business and doesn't interfere in their affairs.
Ahmed, a young Tajik who commands a sizzling paratha (flat bread) cart
in central Kabul's Shahr-e-Nau park, said he wanted to vote for fellow-Tajik
Abdullah, but could not obtain a voter identity card in time. "I think Abdullah
should win, but people are saying Karzai cheated," Ahmed said.
Customers stepped up to have their first bite of the day as Ahmed flipped the
flaky treats onto the oily griddle. He shrugged when asked about the future of
his country's shaky democracy. No matter how a victory comes about, he said,
"People will eventually accept a Karzai win."
In Abdullah's garden
But not all Afghans are conceding to Karzai. At his home in Kabul's Karte
Parwan neighborhood on Tuesday, Abdullah launched into a dramatic media blitz.
Along with fiery rhetoric, he and his campaign team claimed to have physical
evidence of voter fraud purportedly carried out by Karzai confidants in the
"People were trying to steal the verdict of a nation," Abdullah told the
assembled press corps. He pledged to never compromise the writ of the people or
cut political deals - as he claimed others had done up until the day of the
Abdullah's team claims to be winning by as much as 60% in exactly half of
Afghanistan's 34 provinces, but at this time the figures are impossible to
Abdullah brought forth a raft of identical ballots all cast for Karzai. Each
had the same blue check mark and a stamp confirming the "vote" in approximately
the same place on the back. He said this showed that the votes had been
falsified hurriedly, even arrogantly.
The former minister then told all those in his neatly clipped garden that the
election fraud was state-crafted and had been conceived well before the
election. Abdullah proclaimed himself a defender of his people's democratic
rights and promised to defend such rights with "whatever it takes".
"We will pursue all legal means to pursue big fraud," said Abdullah without
explaining precisely how.
The allegedly bogus ballots had been presented to Abdullah by a group of young
Afghans who had traveled to Kabul from an unnamed southern province. Abdullah
praised the young men for their courage and announced that the group told him
in private, "As youths, we thought that this is our future which is in danger
and we will not tolerate this."
Abdullah then showed an undercover video that he claims was given to him from
the volatile Andar district of Ghazni province. In the footage, officials
stuffing ballots said, "Give two [fake votes] for poor Dr Abdullah as well; and
two for [third-place candidate Ramazan] Bashardost."
Abdullah told Asia Times Online he could not reveal the source of the video
"for the sake of security" of those who provided it. He said the ballots had
serial numbers that would correspond to the province and district where they
were meant to be cast, but that he would keep that information in strict
confidence pending further developments. The more specific details, he said,
would be given to the Election Complaints Commission (ECC).
"The legitimacy of the election relies on the conduct of the government," said
Abdullah. Later, he alleged that men in the service of central and provincial
governments had carried out vast fraud with deliberate coordination.
Mixed results at the Intercontinental
Just up the road from Karte Parwan that same day, in a packed auditorium at the
faded Intercontinental Hotel, the Independent Election Commission of
Afghanistan (IEC) held a much-awaited briefing to announce partial results. The
IEC's spokesman Dr Daoud Najafi attempted to soothe a restless audience that
included all of the foreign media in town, representatives from a gaggle of
non-governmental organizations and visiting election observers. On the
sidelines, several Western soldiers took notes.
The results were estimated to be about 10% of the total from every province
save for war-torn Helmand in the southwest and remote, poppy-strewn Badakhshan
in the northeast. Najafi gave the numbers for Karzai at 212,927 and Abdullah at
202,899. This early summary suggested Karzai and Abdullah were running a very
tight race, but the disorganized presentation was short on specifics. Najafi
displayed a graph with slightly differing figures (219,539 for Karzai and
205,515 for Abdullah) on a massive projection screen next to his podium.
By Thursday, Karzai was credited with 44% of the vote, to Abdullah's 35%, with
17% of the ballots counted. Karzai needs 51% of the total votes cast to avoid a
runoff with the second-placed candidate.
Najafi told Asia Times Online that the discrepancy in the figures announced in
Dari and those being shown to the audience was "irrelevant". Meanwhile,
mis-translations by the IEC's very nervous interpreter caused an uproar from
observers already on the edge of their seats. Several Afghan elders confirmed
the disparities in hushed English. "He [Najafi] is telling the wrong
information to the media," whispered a seated man in a suit.
Najafi said that 524,444 "valid" votes had been collected and tallied, while
21,170 had been marked "invalid" due to obvious voter or poll-worker error and
Karzai marches on
On Wednesday, Karzai's campaign spokesman Wahid Omar told Asia Times Online
that a certain degree of fraud was not only likely but was almost inevitable in
a country like Afghanistan.
Still, Omar accused the opposition of conflating straightforward electoral
issues with more nebulous constitutional charges. The IEC is chaired by
pro-Karzai appointee Azizullah Ludin and his position overseeing such a tenuous
democratic process has brought accusations of bias by presidential contenders.
"It [Azizullah's appointment] is a constitutional issue, commissioners are
appointed," said Omar. "They are confusing constitutional issues with electoral
Omar said his campaign team did not "reject that there were violations by some"
but reaffirmed the Karzai's stance that all vote-rigging matters must go
through the channels created to sort through such a conflict via the ECC.
According to Omar, the sitting president "will respect any ECC decision" as
long as fraud disputes are filtered through the proper non-partisan mechanisms.
Omar laughed off Abdullah's video footage of ballot-stuffing as a "Hollywood"
production. He said such events were stage-managed by Karzai's opponents to
"create confusion within the media". These sorts of accusations, he said,
threaten to "destabilize public opinion".
Omar described Abdullah's fraud claims as part of a systematic approach that
was begun by the opposition well before election day. "It is a propaganda
strategy to justify their loss because they know they are not winning."
Elsewhere in the capital, as Karzai remains relatively invisible and Abdullah
promises he will "not compromise", the rhythms of the bazaar go on as always.
Nothing of the election outcome is known for sure, and only rumors of a
possible coalition government blow through Kabul's dusty lanes.
Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in
analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through
traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.