Code 66194
PublishDate: Sunday, August 25, 201309:04

In Afghanistan, Karzai vows not to interfere with election of next president

I, as president, pledged to work toward “free and democratic elections” and said “the Afghan people will have the freedom and the right” to vote for any candidate they prefer.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, facing concerns that he may manipulate the election that will choose his successor, insisted Saturday that he has no intention of intervening in the polls. He said his only role will be to cast a ballot next April like any other citizen.

“I, as president, will definitely help the process, not interfere,” Karzai told journalists at a news conference outside his palace. He pledged to work toward “free and democratic elections” and said “the Afghan people will have the freedom and the right” to vote for any candidate they prefer. 

Questions about Karzai’s impartiality flared this month after he met privately with a group of political leaders and floated the candidacy of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a former anti-Soviet militia leader, legislator and religious scholar from the ultra-strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam.

Sayyaf, 66, has been accused of human rights violations during the Afghan civil war and was instrumental in bringing Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan. He remains influential with Afghans and has been a mentor to Karzai, a fellow ethnic Pashtun, but he has not publicly expressed interest in running for president.

On Saturday, Karzai denied that he favored Sayyaf or any other candidate to succeed him.

So far, only former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah has announced his candidacy, but the list of expected hopefuls includes one of the president’s brothers and several of his former and current aides.

“I respect all candidates. I have my personal choice to make when I cast my ballot, but that will be private to me,” Karzai said. “I am absolutely and totally impartial, and I will remain above the fray.”

The president also said he was optimistic that Afghan and U.S. officials will be able to conclude a security agreement, which has been plagued by repeated disputes over the rights of U.S. forces that remain here after next year, conditions for keeping U.S. military bases in the country and other issues.

Nevertheless, he couched his support in defiant terms, saying Washington must meet a range of Kabul’s demands, especially that it ensure future peace and security for the country after the bulk of Western forces leave next year.

“If the document is conducive to our national interests, we will be able to sign it and send it to the people for approval,” he said. Karzai recently announced that a loya jirga, or gathering of national leaders, will meet to have the final say on the agreement.

Despite Karzai’s assurances that he will not publicly back any presidential candidate, analysts said even his apparent blessing would carry enormous weight in a race where the opposition remains a hodgepodge of rival politicians and shifting coalitions. Many analysts think he will ultimately back his older brother, Qayum Karzai, a businessman and longtime U.S. resident.

More worrisome is the concern raised by Afghan and foreign observers that Karzai could use his sway over government officials and election workers to rig the polling process, damaging the credibility of a new government that needs to take on Taliban insurgents as Western troops withdraw from the country.

“The most important thing is that the elections be transparent, but the threats to that are very large,” said Anwar Ahady, the minister of commerce and one of a dozen major presidential hopefuls.

The last presidential contest, in 2009, in which Karzai narrowly won reelection over Abdullah, was tainted by widespread findings of fraud. This time, fears of Taliban attack have added new concerns that large segments of the populace will be unable to vote, especially in the ethnic Pashtun south that is the Taliban heartland.

An ethnically lopsided outcome, analysts said, could intensify ethnic conflict, strengthen the Taliban and leave the country split between the Pashtun south and the multi-ethnic north.

“If the election turns into a competition between north and south, between Pashtun and anti-Pashtun, it would be extremely dangerous for the future of Afghanistan,” said Moeen Marastial, a former Karzai aide who is now a senior official in the opposition Rights and Justice Party. “It would be civil war.” (Washington Post)

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