Visits to Afghanistan's two presidential contenders have left high-level foreign officials concerned that whatever the final tally, one side or the other won't accept it.
Nearly two months after voting, Afghanistan still awaits a final tally as an international team resolves thousands of cases of election irregularities. Those decisions are expected to subtract votes from President Hamid Karzai's preliminary lead of 54.6 percent. If his final total slips below a majority, he faces a second election versus his chief rival Abdullah Abdullah.
Mr. Karzai's camp is now threatening to call into question the legitimacy of the whole election if it goes into a runoff. But if the final tally shows that Karzai wins outright, Dr. Abdullah's supporters have threatened to protest in the north. To avoid increased violence – or a complete political stalemate – backroom discussions for a power-sharing government are reportedly taking place. So far, there is no agreement on any such arrangement as the nation awaits final results that could come as soon as Monday.
Why Karzai threatens to reject a runoff
In an interview with the Monitor, Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer claims that in order for a runoff to be triggered, some 1.5 million out of 5.6 million votes would need to be declared fraudulent and thrown out.
"If 25 or 26 percent of the votes were fraudulent than this election has no legitimacy," says Mr. Omer. "We think the process will not result in that unless there is a political decision, in which case obviously we will react to it politically."
Omer also seemed to hint that the campaign may attack the Achilles heel of a possible runoff: a very low expected turnout.
"If there is a second round based on a political deal between anyone, then obviously the people have the right to say, 'You didn't take our vote seriously the first time, why should we vote a second time?' " says Omer.
He also emphatically ruled out the possibility of a much-rumored national unity government with Dr. Abdullah that some hope could obviate the need for a runoff. "Quote me, this is unconstitutional."
Will Abdullah show restraint?
Abdullah, meanwhile, refused to talk about whether he would entertain any power-sharing deals with Karzai until the results are announced.
"My position has been: 'Let the process work, don't detract from the process.' Then, hopefully post-announcement, in that new environment, we can see where it goes," said Abdullah in an interview Saturday evening.
He talked with pride about his decisions so far to keep his supporters in check.
"We stood our position without creating problems for this country, without calling for demonstrations. It was an act of utmost restraint," says Abdullah. "People would have come into the streets."
Yet, from the very beginning, Abdullah has expressed his personal concern about calling for civil disobedience. "Too risky," he told the Monitor the day after the vote. On Saturday, he elaborated: "In this sort of lawless situation, someone can turn it violent deliberately, and then there is a situation you don't like and it's not helpful."
Whether he sticks to that restraint this week if the results show a Karzai victory could be key for the stability of the country.
How will voters react?
If Abdullah does not get a runoff, the tone he sets would shape the reactions of ordinary Afghans.
"If Karzai wins again, I will definitely protest with my friends up in Panjshir in the North," says Nur Ullah, an Abdullah voter in Kabul referring to a northern ethnic bastion of Abdullah support. But then he added: "It's in Abdullah's hands – if he says, 'Don't protest,' we won't protest."
He will vote again in the event of a runoff, but other Afghans who voted in the first round said they would not bother. Masood Sarwary, a cashier in Kabul, is convinced his vote would not matter.
"The person who is going to become president will already have been chosen by the foreign powers," says Mr. Sarwary.
He and other ordinary Afghans dismiss the notion that the delay in the final tally is caused by an unbiased process of technical fraud evaluations. Instead, he suspects a backroom power struggle involving foreign powers.
"America is together with Karzai and Dr. Abdullah has European friends," says Sarwary, "and they are each trying to put their own person in."