Supporters of Afghan Presidential Candidate Abdullah Abdullah rally on the last day of campaigning before the election. (Photo: Reuters Pictures)
Hamid Karzai, once a beacon of hope for Afghans, needs more than 50% of the vote to win outright Thursday. But many who voted for him in 2004 think he has failed as a leader.
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan - The dilapidated soccer stadium, a onetime Taliban execution ground, rang today with excited shouts of "Karzai! Kar-ZAI!"
The chants weren't a signal of support for Afghanistan's beleaguered president. Far from it. They were the raucous response to a shouted question -- "Who's the one who failed at governing?" -- from a speaker warming up the crowd for Hamid Karzai's principal rival, Abdullah Abdullah.
When the presidential campaign began two months ago, Karzai looked like the hands-down favorite to win a second five-year term. But heading into Thursday's vote, it was anyone's guess whether he would manage to fight off the challenge from a clutch of competitors.
The 51-year-old Afghan leader is still expected to pick up the largest share of votes, despite widespread disillusionment with drug-fueled corruption and inefficiency in his government and simmering anger over Afghanistan's continued wretched poverty. But he needs more than 50% to win outright. Failing that, the race goes to a runoff in about six weeks between the top two vote-getters.
For Karzai, once the darling of the West and a beacon of hope for his people, it's been a long, hard fall. Afghanistan's first direct presidential vote, in 2004, was more or less a victory lap for him. Karzai, who had led the interim government set up after the Taliban movement was driven from power in a U.S.-led invasion, had no serious challengers in that balloting. An excited, enthusiastic electorate turned out in droves to cast votes for him.
The world welcomed Karzai's win. In one capital after another, he was feted as a man who seemed to effortlessly straddle two worlds: charming and cultivated, educated and English-speaking, but with a deep connection to the Pashtun tribal culture from which he sprang. Even his trademark multicolored cloak, seldom seen these days, was viewed as a chic symbol of savoir-faire.
Now, Karzai's relations with the international community are frayed to the breaking point, and many Afghans who voted for him the first time around have declared their intention to change sides.
"Our country is in a lot of trouble -- so much trouble! -- and he is not helping," said Duljan, a 50-year-old woman who switched her allegiance to Abdullah.
A poll released last week by the International Republican Institute showed gains for the president but also for his main challengers. Karzai's support was put at 44%, compared with 26% for Abdullah, 10% for populist lawmaker Ramazan Bashardost and 6% for former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani.
The survey was based on interviews conducted in July, so if Karzai's rivals have made further gains or even just held their own in the intervening weeks, they would be in a position to deprive him of the majority he needs for victory on Thursday. A final result may not be clear for weeks.
Today, the last day of campaigning, the Karzai and Abdullah camps were a study in contrasts.
Abdullah, who once served as Karzai's foreign minister, began the morning with the stadium rally in the capital. He then flew off for a last round of the frenetic nationwide barnstorming that constitutes a normal day for him, this time in a troubled eastern province.
Karzai spent much of the day, as he so often does, sequestered in the presidential palace. Through weeks of the campaigning, he appeared at only a handful of rallies, usually highly orchestrated affairs packed with handpicked supporters.
The Karzai campaign's overall emphasis seemed to be on making backroom deals. Nine candidates from a crowded field of 40 dropped out today and threw their support to Karzai. One other withdrew and declared allegiance to Abdullah.
As the campaign's final hours ticked down, the president's already testy relations with Western diplomats and military leaders dipped to a new nadir. This week, he allowed a notorious warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, to return to Afghanistan from exile. Dostum, an Uzbek chieftain accused of massive human rights violations, is thought to have the ability to swing a substantial chunk of votes. His return was read as an explicit bit of deal-making, much like the ethnic and political alliances that may yet swing the vote in Karzai's favor.
Karzai brushed aside explicit pleas from senior diplomats to keep Dostum away -- just as he did earlier this summer when he picked a former warlord, Mohammed Fahim, as his running mate. The American Embassy issued an unusually sharply worded rebuke, declaring "serious concerns" over Dostum's presence, "particularly during these historic elections."
A visibly contentions relationship with the Americans is likely to help rather than hurt Karzai. For much of his tenure, which roughly overlapped with the Bush administration, he was seen by many Afghans as too willing to do Washington's bidding. In recent months, kept at arm's length by the Obama administration, he has unleashed harsh criticism of the foreign forces in Afghanistan, saying their carelessness results in far too many Afghan civilian deaths.
One of Karzai's biggest advantages heading into the vote may also prove a pitfall. His fellow Pashtuns are the largest ethnic bloc in Afghanistan, and overwhelming support from them, which he is believed to still enjoy, would normally translate into victory.
But the most violence-plagued parts of the country, the south and east, are the Pashtun heartland, and observers fear that many people in those areas will be unable or unwilling to cast ballots due to a campaign of intimidation by the Taliban. In recent days, that has included threats by local commanders in Kandahar and Helmand provinces to cut off voters' fingers, which are ink-stained as proof they cast a ballot.
Underscoring the rising violence that has coincided with the campaign, an American soldier was killed today in Helmand, where U.S. Marines and British troops have been locked in fighting with the Taliban. July was the bloodiest month for American forces since the start of the conflict in 2001; August's troop-casualty rates look on track to exceed that.
The biggest problem for Karzai, though, is that he seems unable to articulate a larger vision for the country or even to explain why he wants to take the reins for another term. Questions about why he is running often solicit a rambling reply centered on what clearly were his glory days: his daring and dangerous return to Kandahar when it was still under Taliban control.
Abdullah, on the other hand, is able to capitalize on a crisply articulated call for change. "Give me the power, and I will give it back to you!" he told the stadium crowd, which roared its approval.
Karzai's rallies have been more subdued events, almost lifeless at times. At a gathering last week in the capital, the invited crowd of women was heavy on teachers and government employees, many of whom said they had been instructed by their bosses to attend. As soon as Karzai finished speaking, participants stampeded for the exits.
"Wait!" an organizer shouted. "The event isn't over yet!"