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A stallholder sells pictures, including some of Hamid Karzai, at a roadside in Kabul.
Rafiq Maqbool STF
A stallholder sells pictures, including some of Hamid Karzai, at a roadside in Kabul.

Karzai's game of brinkmanship

Hamid Khazan, the president of Afghanistan, is gambling on an early election, while his country's electoral officials say the polls should be held in August.

Take a car ride 25 minutes south, east or west outside Kabul, the capital, and the mountains soon rushing by will be under the control of an alternative government, one that exists in the shadows until night falls and authority is handed over entirely. Drive around the capital itself, to the old city and the slum areas, and hear people say that, if they are given enough money, they will kill or kidnap in the name of any cause to help feed their families.

Then travel through the wealthy part of town, where corrupt officials and expats live behind razor wire and blast walls, safe in the knowledge that the country can go to hell because they can escape abroad whenever they want. Welcome to Afghanistan. It is in this environment that Hamid Karzai has announced he wants to hold presidential elections. Either he is bluffing and hopes to broker an alternative deal or he really does not mind what happens to the world around him, as long as he can retain power.

His decree came on Saturday evening, when the streets of Kabul were emptying fast as they usually do after sunset. Beneath the dry legal language that talked about preserving the "stability and legitimacy of the state", it effectively said the vote should be held in April, four months earlier than planned. Given that the Independent Election Commission had already ruled out such a move and set a date for August, he is gambling with his and Afghanistan's future.

Under the constitution, Mr Karzai's five-year term expires on May 21 and a new vote must occur 30 to 60 days before then. There had, therefore, been some concern about his keeping his position for a few weeks longer than is legally allowed. But with winter just starting to fade and violence at worse levels than at any time since the US-led invasion, the electoral commission recently took the sensible view that it would be impossible for people to go to the polls freely and fairly in the spring. Instead, the idea was that the slight delay would allow a surge in foreign troops to establish some kind of security.

Quite why Mr Karzai has decided to bring that whole process into question is now the subject of much speculation here. One theory is that he wants to catch potential rivals off guard, giving them little time to prepare their campaigns and running his own race with access to all the resources that exist for the incumbent. Another is that he does not genuinely want an early vote, but believes he must be seen trying to follow the constitution. If that is his motive, a compromise might be reached allowing him to be appointed an interim president when his term ends.

Whatever the reason, Afghans across the country must be feeling a mixture of bemusement and anger as all this unfolds. The bloody events of the past seven-and-a-half years have hardly strengthened their faith in the democratic process and they will now wonder why their politicians cannot agree on the most basic of matters. The loudest critics of the August date have come from an opposition bloc made up of Islamic fundamentalist leaders and former Communists, among others. With their power base largely in the north, an early election that makes voting a death sentence across parts of the south and east could produce the result they are looking for, yet they are now complaining. If Mr Karzai wants to appease them somehow, he is playing with fire.

What matters is that when Afghans go to the polls, they can do so freely, fairly and relatively safely. That will not be possible in the spring. With security likely to deteriorate throughout the summer, it may not even be possible in August. All of this could just be the early stages of a broader struggle that culminates in a nationwide civil war, regardless of what date is finally set. The president is trying to cling to power in any way he can, members of the old Northern Alliance are re-exerting their influence and the country's biggest ethnic group could soon be led by a man it had little say in electing. Afghans are sadly used to this kind of brinkmanship and once again they are destined to come out on the losing side.


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