Kabul draped in a veil of uncertainty
KABUL - In the bazaars of Kabul, Afghans face an uncertain Ramadan season. As most businesses close for iftaar, the breaking of the daily fast during this Islamic holy month, food stalls and sweet shops light up to greet a rush of customers.
It's been a week since Afghanistan's presidential and provincial elections. As results trickle in, the streets of Kabul are filled with an equal admixture of uncertainty, doubt and resignation. No one is yet sure who will be the next leader of Afghanistan, but the grind of everyday life must go on.
President Hamid Karzai, once a pliant pointman for Washington, has pulled out of the Western orbit and gravitated toward regional centers in Moscow, Delhi and Tehran. An overhaul of the Karzai power structure would force the United States to forge a new diplomatic equation with his main challenger, former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
Policymakers in Washington and Brussels worry that the current democratic stalemate may present an opening for the Taliban, whose deadly pre-election bombings and threats have terrified the nation. Many Afghans just want the violence to end.
Sadiq runs a bright candy shop along the Kabul River. He didn't vote last week because none of the candidates appealed to him. Still, he believes another five-year term for Karzai is Afghanistan's best prospect.
"Look at the buildings that have been built [during Karzai's rule since December 2004], it is much better than the mujahideen era [of the early 1990s]. We don't want to go back to that. Karzai is the best. If someone new is elected, there may be a problem," Sadiq told Asia Times Online.
Like many bazaaris, Sadiq was reluctant to talk politics. Many insist they only want a leader who is pro-business and doesn't interfere in their affairs.
Ahmed, a young Tajik who commands a sizzling paratha (flat bread) cart in central Kabul's Shahr-e-Nau park, said he wanted to vote for fellow-Tajik Abdullah, but could not obtain a voter identity card in time. "I think Abdullah should win, but people are saying Karzai cheated," Ahmed said.
Customers stepped up to have their first bite of the day as Ahmed flipped the flaky treats onto the oily griddle. He shrugged when asked about the future of his country's shaky democracy. No matter how a victory comes about, he said, "People will eventually accept a Karzai win."
In Abdullah's garden
But not all Afghans are conceding to Karzai. At his home in Kabul's Karte Parwan neighborhood on Tuesday, Abdullah launched into a dramatic media blitz. Along with fiery rhetoric, he and his campaign team claimed to have physical evidence of voter fraud purportedly carried out by Karzai confidants in the violent south.
"People were trying to steal the verdict of a nation," Abdullah told the assembled press corps. He pledged to never compromise the writ of the people or cut political deals - as he claimed others had done up until the day of the election.
Abdullah's team claims to be winning by as much as 60% in exactly half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, but at this time the figures are impossible to verify.
Abdullah brought forth a raft of identical ballots all cast for Karzai. Each had the same blue check mark and a stamp confirming the "vote" in approximately the same place on the back. He said this showed that the votes had been falsified hurriedly, even arrogantly.
The former minister then told all those in his neatly clipped garden that the election fraud was state-crafted and had been conceived well before the election. Abdullah proclaimed himself a defender of his people's democratic rights and promised to defend such rights with "whatever it takes".
"We will pursue all legal means to pursue big fraud," said Abdullah without explaining precisely how.
The allegedly bogus ballots had been presented to Abdullah by a group of young Afghans who had traveled to Kabul from an unnamed southern province. Abdullah praised the young men for their courage and announced that the group told him in private, "As youths, we thought that this is our future which is in danger and we will not tolerate this."
Abdullah then showed an undercover video that he claims was given to him from the volatile Andar district of Ghazni province. In the footage, officials stuffing ballots said, "Give two [fake votes] for poor Dr Abdullah as well; and two for [third-place candidate Ramazan] Bashardost."
Abdullah told Asia Times Online he could not reveal the source of the video "for the sake of security" of those who provided it. He said the ballots had serial numbers that would correspond to the province and district where they were meant to be cast, but that he would keep that information in strict confidence pending further developments. The more specific details, he said, would be given to the Election Complaints Commission (ECC).
"The legitimacy of the election relies on the conduct of the government," said Abdullah. Later, he alleged that men in the service of central and provincial governments had carried out vast fraud with deliberate coordination.
Mixed results at the Intercontinental
Just up the road from Karte Parwan that same day, in a packed auditorium at the faded Intercontinental Hotel, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC) held a much-awaited briefing to announce partial results. The IEC's spokesman Dr Daoud Najafi attempted to soothe a restless audience that included all of the foreign media in town, representatives from a gaggle of non-governmental organizations and visiting election observers. On the sidelines, several Western soldiers took notes.
The results were estimated to be about 10% of the total from every province save for war-torn Helmand in the southwest and remote, poppy-strewn Badakhshan in the northeast. Najafi gave the numbers for Karzai at 212,927 and Abdullah at 202,899. This early summary suggested Karzai and Abdullah were running a very tight race, but the disorganized presentation was short on specifics. Najafi displayed a graph with slightly differing figures (219,539 for Karzai and 205,515 for Abdullah) on a massive projection screen next to his podium.
By Thursday, Karzai was credited with 44% of the vote, to Abdullah's 35%, with 17% of the ballots counted. Karzai needs 51% of the total votes cast to avoid a runoff with the second-placed candidate.
Najafi told Asia Times Online that the discrepancy in the figures announced in Dari and those being shown to the audience was "irrelevant". Meanwhile, mis-translations by the IEC's very nervous interpreter caused an uproar from observers already on the edge of their seats. Several Afghan elders confirmed the disparities in hushed English. "He [Najafi] is telling the wrong information to the media," whispered a seated man in a suit.
Najafi said that 524,444 "valid" votes had been collected and tallied, while 21,170 had been marked "invalid" due to obvious voter or poll-worker error and fraud.
Karzai marches on
On Wednesday, Karzai's campaign spokesman Wahid Omar told Asia Times Online that a certain degree of fraud was not only likely but was almost inevitable in a country like Afghanistan.
Still, Omar accused the opposition of conflating straightforward electoral issues with more nebulous constitutional charges. The IEC is chaired by pro-Karzai appointee Azizullah Ludin and his position overseeing such a tenuous democratic process has brought accusations of bias by presidential contenders.
"It [Azizullah's appointment] is a constitutional issue, commissioners are appointed," said Omar. "They are confusing constitutional issues with electoral ones."
Omar said his campaign team did not "reject that there were violations by some" but reaffirmed the Karzai's stance that all vote-rigging matters must go through the channels created to sort through such a conflict via the ECC.
According to Omar, the sitting president "will respect any ECC decision" as long as fraud disputes are filtered through the proper non-partisan mechanisms. Omar laughed off Abdullah's video footage of ballot-stuffing as a "Hollywood" production. He said such events were stage-managed by Karzai's opponents to "create confusion within the media". These sorts of accusations, he said, threaten to "destabilize public opinion".
Omar described Abdullah's fraud claims as part of a systematic approach that was begun by the opposition well before election day. "It is a propaganda strategy to justify their loss because they know they are not winning."
Elsewhere in the capital, as Karzai remains relatively invisible and Abdullah promises he will "not compromise", the rhythms of the bazaar go on as always. Nothing of the election outcome is known for sure, and only rumors of a possible coalition government blow through Kabul's dusty lanes.
Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.