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Afghan opposition candidate waits for results, though not patiently

Abdullah Abdullah remains a distant second to President Hamid Karzai as vote counts and fraud allegations pile up. The former Karzai ally continues to demand reform while hoping for a new election.

September 17, 2009|Mark Magnier

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Abdullah Abdullah is waiting. As is much of Afghanistan. With the nation approaching the one-month mark since its Aug. 20 presidential election, there are growing concerns at home and abroad that the delay in results and allegations of fraud could increase political instability.

But the former foreign minister, who earned the second-largest number of votes, hasn't been sitting on his hands. These days, he spends much of his time trying to focus attention on the perceived irregularities and slamming the record of his political rival, incumbent President Hamid Karzai.

"After five years of Karzai rule, the people of Afghanistan expected there would be a credible process," Abdullah said this week during an interview in his garden surrounded by roses, pomegranates and marigolds. "Instead, we've seen, in the absence of all this, massive state-engineered fraud," he added as a string of journalists and Afghan luminaries trundled through.

Results announced Wednesday, described as "preliminary final," gave Karzai 54.6% of the vote to Abdullah's 27.8%. But the count will not be official until hundreds of reports of fraud are addressed.

Many on the streets of Kabul, the capital, seem to think Karzai will pull it out.

"People grumble about election fraud in every country, but I don't think there's enough here to change the outcome," said Ahmed Fawad, 50, owner of a dusty shop selling canned goods, potato chips and shampoo. "And Karzai's brought us schools, electricity, roads. People like Abdullah talk a lot, but can they deliver?"

With Karzai on track to win reelection without a runoff, Abdullah's best shot is to seed enough doubt among the Afghan public and the U.N.-affiliated Electoral Complaints Commission to prompt a second round of voting, say political analysts.

The allegations that authorities are investigating, involving nearly 10% of the nation's 24,000 polling stations, include sites where 100% of the votes went to Karzai, vote totals that end in suspiciously round numbers such as 400 or 500, large turnout of women in areas where it's culturally unlikely they would even leave the house, ballot stuffing and registration irregularities.

Waheed Omar, a spokesman for the Karzai campaign, said Abdullah cared less about people's votes than about manipulating public opinion for his own political ends. This may include bucking for a position in the next administration, he added. "There have definitely been irregularities by his team more than others," Omar said. "He's using this as a tool to confuse public opinion, justify his defeat and confuse Western thinking, something that could endanger the stability of Afghanistan."

Abdullah, whose campaign slogan was "The Abdullah so nice they named him twice," said there has been no systemic fraud from his camp, although he can't discount the possibility of isolated irregularities. Abdullah said he wouldn't accept the outcome if Karzai is declared the winner without the fraud allegations being addressed. This has some fearful of street clashes.

"Everyone focuses on what my supporters would do," he said. "They might stay calm. But how long can you maintain the Afghan people's belief in such a system?"

Abdullah, who still has an ink stain on his finger indicating that he voted, weeks after most citizens washed off the telltale mark, said fraud allegations fit with other Karzai administration shortcomings, including weak governance, poor security and minimal adherence to the rule of law.

"This golden opportunity for Afghanistan has been messed up," he said. "I don't think we have a free ticket from the U.S. or international community. If the process is corrupt, we will lose that opportunity -- a big loss."

Abdullah, son of a Tajik mother and a Pashtun father, is a trained ophthalmologist who treated refugees before becoming an advisor to Tajik resistance hero Ahmed Shah Massoud in 1986. Fluent in English and French, he lobbied foreign governments during the years of Taliban rule to support the struggling Northern Alliance fighters in northern Afghanistan. After the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban, Abdullah joined Karzai in setting up a new government.

Abdullah's switch from Karzai supporter to archrival has prompted some to liken him to a political chameleon, a characterization Abdullah disputes, saying he has always been an independent, principled thinker. He said he identified governance problems before Afghanistan's 2004 presidential election and raised these with Karzai, who failed to act on them. He chose not to vote for Karzai in 2004 despite being in Karzai's Cabinet and said he told the president as much.

"What sort of political lizard would do this?" Abdullah said, sitting in an open tent in Kabul's upscale Karte Parwan neighborhood, across the street from two huge houses with baby blue faux Corinthian columns and half a block from sheep munching on refuse. "This isn't the actions of someone without principles and values. This is based on vision."

Mohammad Feroz doesn't know about vision. But the 25-year-old butcher believes Abdullah is more trustworthy than Karzai. "I know he can do something for the people," Feroz said, standing beside a wheelbarrow of bloody sheepskins. "Karzai won in 2004 because of fraud. I didn't vote for him then, and I didn't this time. Karzai's no good."

Abdullah said his administration would be markedly different from Karzai's. Its hallmarks, he added, would be people-led government, a parliamentary system to cap the presidency's extraordinary power, greater participation by political parties and "zero tolerance" for corruption.

The 49-year-old politician, dressed in a tie and pressed bluejeans, said he had little illusion that fraud and malfeasance could be wiped out easily. But national leaders must lead by example, he added.

"If you base your contacts on corruption, there's no end in sight," he said. "I'm not saying it's an easy task, but you have to start from the top."


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