Is Karzai planning to rig Afghan presidential polls?

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Afghanistan goes to the polls on April 5 to elect a new president as well as new provincial council members. The polls are seen as key to the country’s future given that foreign military presence is scheduled to draw down to minimal levels by the end of the year. A new president is expected to steer Afghanistan towards peace or disaster.
The West, which has bankrolled the Afghan government since 2001 October after invading it to rid the country of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, seems to believe the election of a new president in a free and fair manner is essential for durable, long term peace. A fraudulent election, on the other hand, is considered to be a sure recipe for disaster.
While it is not at all clear what a new president is expected to achieve in Afghanistan, the real fear in Western capitals is of President Hamid Karzai retaining his grip on the country through a proxy in the form of former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, one of the many contestants in the electoral race.
Rassoul, 72, is of a more scholarly than political bent of mind. Always a brilliant student, he did his schooling at the prestigious French government assisted Lycée Esteqlal in Kabul before going on to study medicine on a scholarship at the Paris Medical School. A qualified doctor, Rassoul has authored dozens of papers in western medical journals, learnt several foreign languages including French, English, Italian and Arabic, but has never had the time or inclination to get married.
How the scholarly bachelor, who had lived most of his adult life in the west, returned to become part of the government in Kabul is a bit of a mystery. It is rumoured that his staunch royalist leanings led him to become part of the core team of former Afghan King, Zahir Shah. Rassoul had returned to Afghanistan with the king in 2002 and was made the minister for civil aviation. After the King left Kabul following an accident and subsequent medical complications, Rassoul remained in the country and became part of Hamid Karzai’s political team, and ultimately his closest confidant.
President Karzai is renovating an old, European-style mansion within the presidential compound known as the Arg (Pastho for citadel), which he hopes to occupy in perpetuity. From here, it is alleged by his detractors, he will continue to pull government strings for as long as he can.
Others point out that Karzai desperately needs a sympathetic successor to ensure that he does not end up like many other past Afghan rulers — at the end of a noose or in front of a firing squad. The west is preparing to leave and as the fighters across the border gear up for another round of civil war, Karzai, who has long been viewed as a western stooge, requires stronger safeguards than what his vacillating former patrons can provide.
President Karzai places such trust in Rassoul that he even compelled his older brother Qayyum Karzai, who had jumped into the electoral fray, to step down in Rassoul’s favour. It is reported that the elder Karzai who owns a restaurant in Baltimore, bowed out of the race rather reluctantly, perhaps induced by an offer he could not refuse.
Others are said to have been made similar offers and several have stepped down in Rassoul’s favour, including former defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Mohammad Nadir Naim, the grandson of the former king.
The two principal challengers to Rassoul are Dr Abdullah Abdullah, former Northern Alliance leader, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former World Bank official. Both these men have served as ministers under Hamid Karzai and both threw in their hat in the 2009 presidential polls, which most independent observers believe Dr Abdullah Abdullah would have won had it not been for widespread rigging allegedly engineered by President Karzai.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai had secured a minuscule percentage of the vote last time but that does not appear to deter him. Bazar gossip has it that he is Washington’s man. Although one opinion poll has shown him leading in the race, Ahmadzai and his election managers have constantly complained of government support to Rassoul.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan might never know who the most popular presidential candidate truly is. Almost all independent Afghanistan experts believe that this time too the vote would be rigged.
Presidential candidates as well as the Independent Election Commission (IEC) continue to protest government meddling in the poll process. Even the UN Secretary General said the polls this time would be “somewhat flawed”.
Rigging the polls will not be difficult given that voter identity cards are being traded quite extensively in many parts of the country. Agents of the more influential presidential candidates are reported to be hoarding voter cards for polling day. Candidates are also relying on the support of local leaders, warlords and strongmen for bringing Afghans to the booths to vote in their favour. Targeted violence by the Taliban has scared off most foreign poll observers. The Associated Press reported that this time it would be up to the ordinary Afghan to ensure that ballot stuffing and other fraud did not go unchallenged now that “the international observer mission is far smaller this time and relentless violence has driven away many foreigners who signed up.”
President Karzai publicly avows that he is looking forward to retirement and will not in anyway interfere in the polls. At the same time, he has repeatedly warned that unlike in 2009 he will not brook western interference in the vote.
It is not clear what President Karzai with his limited powers could do if western powers decide to manipulate the poll results. He seems to believe his trump card is the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that needs to be signed to allow a residual American military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
So far, President Karzai has refused to sign the BSA, saying he will leave it to his successor. The signal is that the BSA will be signed if Rassoul is allowed to succeed him. If not, he would attempt to permanently jeopardise the agreement.
Afghan voters are thus caught in a power game where they have little say much as they would like to influence their country’s future. A poll by the country’s Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) found that 92 percent of Afghans polled planned to vote but were worried about possible fraud. Their loss cannot possibly be Afghanistan’s gain.

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Much as I am tempted to see the fuss over Ved Pratap Vaidik’s posturing as a warning against busybodies and meddlers, wholesale condemnation of what is known as Track Two diplomacy might be unfair.

There is considerable speculation about when the Planning Commission will be reconstituted and who will occupy the largest room in Yojana Bhavan.