Afghanistan, and its president, in waiting

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KABUL — It’s been a season of surprises for Afghanistan election watchers. Six months ago the race was wide open and President Hamid Karzai was a political corpse. By mid-May the resurrected Karzai was a shoo-in, and his rivals an uncoordinated and constantly squabbling pack of no-hopers.

Then one of the contenders emerged with what many saw as a real chance. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s former foreign minister, ran a strong campaign that, for a period of a few weeks, seemed able to change the dynamic. (Here is GlobalPost's guide to the candidates.)

But with just days to go before the Aug. 20 polls, the results of the ballot are no longer seriously in doubt. Veteran Afghan hands agree: Karzai will stay in office for another five years. The only suspense surrounds voter turnout, ballot box fraud and possible violence after the results are announced. Tuesday morning, just two days before the elections, three bombings ripped through the heart of Kabul.

To a large extent, the elections seem to have been reduced to a feel-good exercise for the foreign community, which is at some pains to prove that its eight-year presence in the country has not been in vain. Last summer, diplomats were speaking in lowered tones about the impossibility of conducting a valid poll in a country that was fast degenerating into chaos. Then came the decision, anointed by the United Nations: the elections will go forward because they must.

U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide has already sought to lower expectations, saying that the poll is “not perfect.” No one speaks any longer of “free and fair” elections — now international experts are content with “credible.”

For many Afghans, the whole idea was absurd from the beginning. With huge swaths of the country too volatile to establish secure polling stations; campaign teams bent on bribery and intimidation; and a host of candidates with no answers to the country’s seemingly insurmountable problems, the voters have very few expectations from the exercise.

“Everyone knows the next president will be chosen in Washington,” is the most common refrain heard on the streets of Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and other major cities.

In the villages, people are silent: many have been threatened with violence if their community does not vote en masse for one or another of the candidates.

The Taliban are vowing to disrupt the elections, and have issued night letters prohibiting people from voting. Those found with the telltale mark — voters are asked to dip their index finger in a bottle of indelible ink — could lose a digit or, worse, their head.

Most observers expect large-scale fraud, especially in the more remote areas of the country. Reports have trickled in that local leaders have been making copies of voter registration cards — the only document needed to cast a ballot. As many as 20 percent of polling stations will be located in the homes of tribal elders, with few or no monitors. As long as they have copies of the cards, these elders can cast as many ballots as they like for the candidate of their choice.

In many areas, that candidate seems to be Karzai. While deeply unpopular with the electorate, he still commands authority among local leaders, many of whom will be looking for post-election rewards for delivering the vote.

But Karzai may not be able to pull off a first-round victory. According to Afghanistan’s Election law, a candidate must get over 50 percent of the vote to win. Failing that, the top two vote-getters will face off, most likely in early October.

There are growing signs that the international community is readying itself for just such an eventuality. Election experts say that preparations are already underway for a runoff, and a U.S.-funded opinion survey published last week by the little-known firm Glevum Associates set the stage. Karzai, the poll revealed, had 45 percent support among the voters – strong, but not enough to achieve a first-round victory.

The Independent Election Commission is also preparing for the runoff. Spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor, in conversation with colleagues, said as much.

“We will have work for another few months,” he was overheard to remark.

The Contenders

The original cast of characters has almost all faded away: in February, GlobalPost did a list of likely front-runners, many of whom eventually decided not throw their hats in the ring.

Ali Ahmad Jalali, an early favorite, did not declare his candidacy. Insiders say that the former Interior Minister was not willing to risk his American passport, which he would have had to surrender in order to run.

Former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad also opted out; after a March conference in Dubai, during which it seemed certain he was preparing to declare his candidacy, the Afghan-American contented himself with a behind-the-scenes role.

Gul Agha Sherzai, the tough and controversial governor of Nangahar province, pulled out the day before the deadline for announcing one’s candidacy. He had everything in place, including his vice-presidential picks. But after a long meeting with the president, Sherzai announced that he was withdrawing.

Interior Minister Hanif Atmar had also been widely rumored to be in the running; he did not, in the end, make any decisive moves towards becoming a candidate. But at 41, Atmar has plenty of time for a bid later on.

By the May deadline, 43 candidates had registered their intention to run. Two were disqualified, four have since dropped out, with as many as 25 more expected to follow suit before election day.

But most of the contenders never had a real chance; instead, they were hoping to gain enough exposure and popular support to parlay into a lucrative or powerful post in the new administration.

Only six candidates really matter: Karzai, Abdullah, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, firebrand reformer Ramazan Bashar Dost, parliamentary speaker Mirwais Yasini and and former Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi.

But in the end, after elections, the country is likely to be right back where it started: all problems, no solutions. The elections will almost certainly turn out to be all sound and fury, after all. 

The following profiles were prepared by GlobalPost Afghanistan correspondent Jean MacKenzie and Executive Editor Charles M. Sennott, recently returned from a reporting trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan.