A Treacherous Test For Afghan Democracy

When President George W. Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, he declared that Afghanistan and Iraq "are on the path to democracy" and will be "a model for the broader Middle East." Afghanistan's Oct. 9 presidential election will be the first test. And the path to democracy is looking treacherous.

Polling monitors and workers are not yet in place. Power brokers are trying to cut deals to eliminate competitive elections. Violence against election workers and politicians is on the rise. The day before Bush's speech, Afghan Vice-President Nematuallah Shahrani survived the bombing of his convoy, and four days before that, a missile targeted President Hamid Karzai's helicopter but missed. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, has warned that the Taliban and militias could launch a "Tet offensive" to disrupt voting.

Hardly anyone expects the voting to meet international standards. There will be fewer than 150 global observers for 5,000 polling places, says the Afghanistan Research & Evaluation Unit (AREU), an independent Kabul group. A domestic consortium of civic groups will monitor just 12% of the sites, leaving vast swaths to local police, many of whom are former militia members, says the AREU. In mid-August the government hadn't identified the 100,000 poll workers it needed to train, says the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Washington. "We've always acknowledged that challenges would be there," says a U.S. State Dept. spokeswoman.

What's more, while large voter registration shows clear popular enthusiasm for the process, some areas have registration rates as high as 140% of projected eligible voters. That 10 million of the projected 10.5 million eligible voters signed up may reflect multiple registrations -- and an effort by local power brokers to pack the polls. "People show up with three or four or five cards," says the NDI's Oren Ipp. "We don't know how much that inflates the numbers."

Stacking the Odds

Meanwhile, pre-election wheeling and dealing goes on. Karzai has offered his toughest opponent, ex-Education Minister Yunus Qanuni, a Cabinet post in an attempt to persuade the Tajik to exit the race. Other big names, such as Uzbek warlord Abdul-Rashid Dostum, aren't likely to provide much of a challenge even though Karzai has made little progress as president. The drug trade accounts for half the nation's $4.5 billion economy, and foreign aid bankrolls the government. Yet Karzai is seen as a shoo-in. "Americans are in charge -- they want Karzai to win," says Sumeer Bhasin, who owns a Kabul restaurant. Karzai's main threat may be Taliban intimidation of his Pashtun base, which might stay home rather than risk voting.

Even if Karzai wins the election handily, he will have to confront the warlords to contain their power before they hijack the spring parliamentary elections. "By next year we'll see the beginnings of a civil war," says Sundeep Waslekar, president of geopolitical consultant Strategic Foresight Group in Bombay. The best that can be hoped is that Karzai uses a blend of force and diplomacy to contain the factions. An election is good. So is a functional country.

By Stan Crock in Washington, with Manjeet Kripalani in New Delhi and Naween A. Mangi in Karachi

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