- 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.

Meanwhile, reports of voter registration cards for sale on the black market are rife, and underage Afghans are said to have received cards. And a disproportionate amount of registered female voters in some provinces suggests irregularities.

Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent election-monitoring group, said men are registering multiple women in their families under the pretext that women cannot register in person because of cultural sensitivities.

In Kandahar, the name “Britney Jamilia Spears” appeared on one voter list.

Some monitors, including Mr. Spinghar, have spoken in terms of acceptable degrees of fraud, saying that anything under 10 percent would be acceptable.

Kai Eide, the top United Nations official in Afghanistan, said last weekend that fraud-prevention measures have been upgraded compared with the first presidential election in 2004. Once again, voters will be required to dip a finger in indelible blue ink to ensure they dont vote multiple times.

The Taliban, which has vowed to disrupt the vote with attacks against polling stations, reportedly has threatened to harm people with ink on their fingers.

In the south of the country, militants reportedly have been distributing “night letters” that threaten to cut off ink-stained fingers.

Over the weekend, a massive suicide car bomb detonated near the gate of the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force, where NATO is based. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack that killed seven and wounded more than 90.

Mr. Bashardost, an ethnic Hazara who has run a shoestring campaign by canvassing the country in a beat-up bus, is a surprise story of the contest.

Dismissed as a populist eccentric, he has campaigned widely without bodyguards as an anti-corruption maverick denouncing ethnic patronage networks that have eroded public trust in the government.

“All the Afghan people trust me, no matter what [ethnic] group they belong to,” he said inside his campaign headquarters, a shabby tent, across the street from the national parliament. “I am a man of the people.”

According to polls, Mr. Bashardost is running ahead of Mr. Ghani, an urbane technocrat who was once considered a candidate to become secretary-general of the United Nations.

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