- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | Top candidates made a last-minute push for votes Sunday, with incumbent President Hamid Karzai appearing in a televised debate in which opponents spent nearly 90 minutes criticizing his alliances with regional warlords.

Mr. Karzai skipped the only other debate last month, an awkward absence punctuated by opponents addressing his empty podium in the middle of the television screen.

Such events are a novelty for most Afghans, as is democracy itself, which will require voters to face the threat of terrorist attacks if they show up at polls Thursday to choose the next president and members of parliament. Taliban insurgents consider both television and democracy un-Islamic.

Thursday’s elections are also a crucial test for the Obama administration, which has more than 60,000 U.S. troops on the ground attempting to protect 33 million Afghans from a growing Taliban insurgency.

In Sunday’s debate, opponents Ramazan Bashardost and Ashraf Ghani scored hits on Mr. Karzai for a series of pre-election deals with warlords.

“There are those who claim they are fighting warlords, but today warlords have the main role in their campaign, and (one) is their first vice president; this is not acceptable for the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Bashardost charged, according to a translation by Agence France-Presse.

The candidate declined to name names, claiming that could cause a bottle-throwing melee on television — a quip referring to debates in parliament that sometimes end with lawmakers throwing plastic bottles at each other.

Mr. Karzai is expected to win. But what was once considered a walkover for the incumbent has narrowed in recent days amid expectations he will fall short of the 50 percent vote needed to avoid a runoff.

The campaign of former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has surged into the No. 2 position in recent weeks. Mr. Abdullah, who took part in the July debate, was the no-show Sunday, but it was unclear why.

The latest opinion poll, released Thursday by the International Republican Institute (IRI), shows Mr. Karzai with 44 percent support, followed by Mr. Abdullah with 26 percent.

Mr. Bashardost, a member of parliament and former planning minister, received 10 percent, followed by Mr. Ghani, a former finance minister known for his close ties with U.S. officials, with 6 percent.

Deteriorating security was the primary concern of those polled in the IRI-funded survey, followed by a lack of jobs and economic prospects.

Mr. Karzai has won support of warlords Mohammed Qasim Fahim, who would be his vice president, and Abdul Rashid Dostam, who is nominally Afghanistan’s military chief. Mr. Karzai defends their support as necessary for national unity.

Apart from insecurity, another major concern is electoral fraud. According to the Independent Election Commission, more than half of the population has registered, a figure that has roused suspicion because more than half the population is thought to be too young to vote.

Election observers estimate that militant violence will keep 700 of the countrys 7,000 polling centers from opening, mostly in the south.

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