x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Karzai's power grab is a big miscalculation

No one could possibly trust the results of the last Afghan election. Nearly a third of the votes from the first round of voting were thrown out because of fraud.

No one could possibly trust the results of the last Afghan election. Nearly a third of the votes from the first round of voting were thrown out because of fraud. The incumbent Hamid Karzai nearly declared himself the victor anyway. And when his opponent dropped out before the second round of balloting, Mr Karzai waltzed into office with barely a nod to the principles he had trod underfoot. Now it seems that the president is determined to shed even the flimsy mandate that his election provided him. Since the August ballot, Nato countries, whose troops are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, have pressured Mr Karzai to curb corruption and replace election officials. On Tuesday he finally acted - by giving himself complete control over the last independent watchdog overseeing voting, the Electoral Complaints Commission.

It isn't difficult to understand Mr Karzai's reasons for further brutalising the Afghan constitution. Referred to by his detractors as "the mayor of Kabul" because of his tenuous grip outside the capital, the president is trying to centralise as much power as he can before parliamentary elections in September. If he and his allies can repeat their last performance, Afghanistan will be a democracy only in name.

That would be a serious setback for the stability of the country, which desperately needs functioning institutions to channel conflict from the battlefield to the political arena. But democratisation and stronger institutions will do little to benefit Mr Karzai's inner circle. His power base is a coterie of allies of convenience tied to him by a corrupt system of patronage. Afghanistan has seen the rise and fall of this kind of leader before.

For all of the squeamishness about Mr Karzai's dodgy electioneering, his regime's corruption, it is still Nato and coalition forces that keep him in power. The alternative to Mr Karzai is a return to the Taliban. The US reinforcements and the beginning of a long campaign in Helmand province are ongoing despite, not because of, Mr Karzai's leadership. For the time being, he can still shelter under their umbrella. Eventually he will have to stand on his own.

Mr Karzai's long-term prospects have always depended on his ability and willingness to deliver good governance, which is now a distant hope at best. The struggle to define Afghanistan will continue, but this president's political machinations do little for his country. And should they continue, they will lead to his own undoing.