- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

SHIBERGHAN, Afghanistan | In the months leading up to Afghanistans second presidential election, there was growing optimism the country was shifting away from ethnic patronage toward a newer kind of issues-based politics.

As Afghans went to the polls Thursday amid reports of low voter turnout, sporadic violence and fraud, anecdotal evidence suggested that former warlords still wield heavy-handed influence that could ultimately decide who wins.

Taliban threats kept many voters away, especially in the south, and insurgent attacks killed 26 people across the country. After 10 hours of voting, including an hourlong extension, a top election official told the Associated Press that about 40 percent to 50 percent of the country’s 15 million registered voters cast ballots. Seventy percent voted in the 2004 presidential election.

The Afghan people braved “rockets, bombs and intimidation and came out to vote. We’ll see what the turnout was, but they came out to vote. That is great,” President Hamid Karzai said. He said militants carried out 73 attacks in 15 provinces, the AP reported.

A U.S. service member was killed in a mortar attack in the east Thursday, bringing to at least 33 the number of U.S. troops killed this month.

Moments after casting his vote for Mr. Karzai, 72-year-old Qari Maqsud, an Afghan Uzbek stone mason in Shiberghan, said he did so because of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. The notorious militia leader called on all his supporters to vote for the incumbent at a homecoming rally earlier in the week.

On Sunday, Gen. Dostum returned from a months-long exile in Turkey, to the dismay of the United States and human rights groups who say he is responsible for brutalities.

“I would vote for that tree over there if the general asked me to,” Mr. Maqsud said, without a trace of humor in his voice.

Similar sentiments were echoed by dozens of residents interviewed around the predominantly ethnic Uzbek stronghold, which accounts for about 9 percent of the countrys total population. “We only vote with Dostum,” said Khodaie Berdeh, 34, a shopkeeper.

His burly image omnipresent in shops and city walls, Gen. Dostum claims he can deliver at least 500,000 votes to Mr. Karzai. If true, this would make him the single most influential of Mr. Karzais heavyweight backers.

According to Gen. Dostum, an agreement to support Mr. Karzai was hammered out over two months of talks with the Hezb-e-Wahdat, a mainly Hazara Shi’ite party led by Mohammad Mohaqiq, a mujahedeen commander.

Gen. Dostum would not elaborate on what kind of guarantees he was given, but many suspect hell receive a Cabinet post and the cancellation of an inquiry into purported political violence against a rival.

Mr. Mohaqiq, for his part, has been very public about his deal in exchange for top jobs and a redrawing of provincial borders in central Afghanistan in favor of the Hazara.

With exit polls showing Mr. Karzai six points shy of the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a run-off, their combined vote banks could prove critical to his re-election prospects.

Preliminary results are not expected for several days. If there is no clear winner, a second-round would follow in about six weeks.

When Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun, was first elected in 2004, he enjoyed considerable support outside his ethnic group cultivated on a pledge to accelerate reconstruction and more equally distribute power among ethnic groups polarized by war.

Some 40 percent of ethnic Tajiks, the second-largest group, said they chose Mr. Karzai in polls. Five years later, the latest survey released last week by the International Republican Institute indicated that 80 percent of Afghans have an independent voting attitude.

Nader Nadery, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said Afghanistan has moved beyond patronage politics in recent years, in part thanks to past mujahedeen leaders who have transformed themselves in political life by rejecting coercive tactics.

An example of this transformation is the popularity of Ramazan Bashardost, a member of parliament and former planning minister who has toured the country relentlessly on a shoestring budget with his anti-corruption message.

An ethnic Hazara, polls show Mr. Bashardost has nonetheless made inroads among other groups and may win up to 10 percent of the overall vote. Mr. Bashardost was one of 41 candidates in the race for president.

His success appears to bear out a new report by Martine van Bijlert, a Kabul-based analyst who asserts that while ethnic fault lines still run deep, Afghans tend to identify with several groups, not just their own.

“There is an appetite for non-factional alignment,” the report said. “This, together, with the changing behavior of the urban young, may chip away at the expected voting patterns along ethnic, tribal and factional lines.”

Mr. Karzai, meanwhile, made a series of backroom deals to co-opt the opposition.

In quick succession, he gained the support of warlord Gul Agha Shirzai, now governor of Nangarhar province; Mohammad Fahim, the Tajik former guerilla leader; Mr. Mohaqiq and other key Hazara leaders.

The rehabilitation of Gen. Dostum was the final stroke.

An hour-and-a-half drive east of Shiberghan across sun-baked plains, residents of Mazar-e-Sharif are tilted sharply toward Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and now the leading challenger to Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Abdullahs endorsement from Mohammad Atta, the influential governor of Balkh province and another former mujahedeen field commander, helped consolidate his northern power base.

In the final week before the campaign season closed, Mr. Abdullah held an afternoon rally in Mazar-e-Sharif that drew an estimated 100,000 people. A variety of mass-produced color posters featured the candidate with Mr. Atta, side by side.

On election day, at a voting station inside a city high school, nearly all of the males emerging with ink-stained fingers said they had voted for Mr. Abdullah. Some refused to comment.

Although of mixed Tajik-Pashtun background, Mr. Abdullah is more identified with the Panjshiri Tajiks who led the Northern Alliance that ousted the Taliban in 2001, serving as an adviser to the late guerilla chief Ahmed Shah Masood.

Muhammad Mehdi, 68, an ethic Tajik truck driver, said he voted for Mr. Abdullah out of solidarity with fellow Tajik mujahedeen who fought against the Soviets and then the Taliban, whose resurgence has troubled him.

In the south of the country, where the Taliban presence is the strongest, militant threats kept many voters away from the polls, election officials said, a development that could harm Mr. Karzai.

Several northern provinces also suffered an uptick in violence. Raging gunbattles in Kunduz on Thursday prevented some voting stations from opening.

This article was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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