KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – The talk in Kabul is about one number.
Sometime this weekend, the two election bodies running Afghanistan's fraud-riddled presidential vote are expected to home in on a final percentage of votes won by President Hamid Karzai back in August – minus the funny business.
If his number dips below 50 – which appears increasingly possible – the Afghan Constitution calls for a runoff vote in two weeks.
But that's just what the Constitution says. In practice, such a revote would almost certainly require more time, or could be skipped entirely if Mr. Karzai and his chief opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, strike a powersharing deal.
And the powerful former US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, once considered a virtual "viceroy" here, also arrived in town to meet with the two camps. The American Embassy declined to explain Mr. Khalilzad's mission, claiming in an e-mail response that he is here as "a private US citizen, not on behalf of the US Government."
Pressure for such a deal is greatest now – ahead of any official announcement of numbers, says Kabul-based political scientist Wadir Safi. "Some people are meddling to see if they can come to a compromise to make a broad-based government," says Mr. Safe. "These negotiations would be before announcing the [final] results," which he says have already been delayed to give the talks more time.
It's also possible that a low Karzai number could create a breakthrough in these negotiations, as the threat of a frantic runoff becomes real.
Suddenly, a lot of people would be staring at a lot of uncertainty and dangerous work. Election workers, campaign organizers, observers, and Afghan and American soldiers would need to fan out again across the country. How quickly they move after this weekend's news will be one gauge of how optimistically the stakeholders view the potential for any grand compromise.
The first domino should fall Saturday morning. The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) – a body staffed with international experts tasked with adjudicating irregularities – expects to release the results of an audit of suspicious polling stations. It will also rule on the remaining serious complaints it received during the election process.
They will not, however, perform the math behind those rulings to come up with a final percentage for Karzai. That task falls to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) – an Afghan body run by a Karzai-appointee – which will release the certified final results.
A few days might pass between the ECC ruling and the IEC's final certification. The ECC rulings, however, will spur back-of-the-envelope calculations that could more or less reveal the election results.
The Washington Post created a stir here Friday with an article citing anonymous officials who say Karzai's final number falls short at about 47 percent. Nellika Little, spokeswoman for the ECC, said that the commission was still working as of Friday morning, making it impossible for any final percentage to be calculated.
"We all woke up to it and said, 'Oh, is there some simultaneous process going on we don't know about?' " says Ms. Little.
Ordinary Afghans may suspect that the winner is in fact being chosen behind the scenes.
"The UN-initiated audit process lacks local legitimacy, as it is seen by most Afghans as an elaborate cover for behind-the-scenes dealmaking - which will only conclude once the internationals have received what they want," wrote Martine van Bijlert, a co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, on her blog.