Afghan elections: What might happen next
With President Hamid Karzai's rivals crying foul, the incumbent may win by solid margins but lose legitimacy – which could hamper counterinsurgency efforts.
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The international community could cry foul, but may be disinclined to do so.Skip to next paragraph
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"The international community has no choice – it has to come out at the end saying it was reasonably fair," says Marvin Weinbaum, scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "We gave this election such a critical status, we really imbued it with such importance that to say it failed is to suggest there's no legitimate government."
Nor do many here expect an Iranian-style popular uprising in the streets. Karzai's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, says he rules out encouraging civil disobedience, saying it would be "too risky."
A close win for Karzai
Many Western stakeholders are seeing a 51 percent win for Karzai as the best-case outcome, says an international election monitor barred from speaking openly during the election process. Such a result would avoid a messy run-off but perhaps appear credible.
However, it would also rob Karzai of much claim to a popular mandate. He would emerge more dependent on controversial warlords who backed him during the election in exchange for positions at the table.
If no candidate emerges with a majority of the votes, a runoff between the top two vote getters is scheduled for Oct. 1. Privately, some educated Afghans in Kabul speak with dread about this outcome. They worry the country remains too weak to organize a run-off so soon and keep supporters – and their passions – in check.
For those officials whose job security depends on Karzai's return, a run-off could come as a surprise – and a fright.
"Ministers, governors, members of Parliament, police chiefs – if they see that their jobs are really at risk, of course they will do their best to keep it," says Fahim Dashty, editor of the local newspaper Kabul Weekly.
Abdullah, the candidate, says that the international community is committed to a run-off and that it can be arranged. He says his campaign is ready as well, but may need to raise more funds to pay to transport voters to the polls on Oct. 1.
Abdullah eventually wins
An Abdullah victory would be historic: Afghanistan has never witnessed a peaceful transition of power. It would mark an important step toward democracy.
It would also ignite hope for a changed government.
"Whether he is able to bring these changes or not, is another issue," says Mr. Dashty. "I think if he gathers a professional team, honest, and committed, then it can be better than the current government."
Karzai's campaign has argued that an Abdullah presidency could cause further unrest among Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, the Pashtuns, who historically have chafed at being ruled by leaders who are not fully Pashtun. Abdullah is half Tajik, half Pashtun. The Taliban insurgency rises from the Pashtun regions.
Many Afghan analysts reject this.
"There is still an uprising now with a Pashtun president," says Wadir Safi, a professor of law at Kabul University. The Taliban movement does not feed off ethnic Pashtun nationalism, he adds, meaning that the election of a half-Pashtun leader will probably not add to their momentum.