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August 16, 2009, Sunday

Afghan elections: Another turning point

Next week Afghanistan will go through another turning point in its recent history after the Taliban regime, which was toppled in 2001.This turning point is, of course, the very important presidential and provincial council elections to be held countrywide next Thursday.

According to the Independent Election Committee, to date, 41 presidential candidates will take part in these crucial elections. They are as follows: Hamid Karzai, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Ramazan Bashardost, Haji Rahim Jan Shinzad, Mohammad Yasin Safi, Mohammad Sarwar Ahmzai, Eng. Moin-ul-din Ulfati, Dr. Habib Mangal, Zabih-Ullah Ghazi Noristani, Sayed Jalal Karim, Mirwais Yasini, Bismillah Shir, Bashir Ahmad Bizhan, Motasim Billah Mazhabi, Abdul Latif Pedram, Shahnawaz Tanai, Dr. Mohammed Nasir Anis, Mulla Abdul Salam Rakity, Zia-ul-haq Hafizi, Mohammad Akbar Oria, Baz Mohammad Kofi, Sangin Mohammad Rahmani, Mahbob-U-lah Koshani, Mohammad Hakim Torsan, Abdul Hasib Arian, Mula Ghulam Mohammad Rigi, Mawlawi Mohammad Sayed Hashimi, Abdul Majid Samim, Nasrullah Baryalai Arsalai, Alhaj Shah Mahmood Popal, Shahla Ata, Dr. Ghulam Faroq Nijrabi, Alhaj Abdul Ghafor Zori, Mohammad Hashim Tawfiqi, Haji Hasan Ali Sultani, Mawlana Abdul Qadir İmami Ghori, Dr. Ferozan Fanah, Abdul Jabar Sabet, Hidayat Amin Arsala, Gul Ahmmad Yama. Among the 41 contenders there are two women candidates: Mrs. Ata and Dr. Fanah.

Although the candidate list is pretty long, only four will compete meaningfully. The rest will only have their names cited. The leading contenders are: the incumbent president, Karzai (Pashtun), former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah (father Pashtun, mother Tajik), former Minister of Finance Ashraf Ghani (Pashtun) and Bashardost (Hazara), a former planning minister and current member of parliament.

In addition to the presidential elections, Provincial Council candidates from 33 provinces will also be elected. These provinces are: Kabul, Kapisa, Parwan, Wardak, Logar, Ghazni, Paktia, Khost, Nangarhar, Kunar, Laghman, Nooristan, Badakhshan, Takhar, Baghlan, Kunduz, Samangan, Balkh, Jowzjan, Sar-e Pul, Faryab, Badghis, Herat, Farah, Nimruz, Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Urozgan, Ghor, Bamiyan, Panjshir and Daykundi. These elections are also important.

All the indications and recent polls suggest that although President Karzai is still leading in the presidential race, he will not be able to gain enough votes to be elected outright in the first round. To be elected outright, he needs to gain 50 percent plus of the votes cast to avoid a second-round runoff. But he falls short of that at the moment.

For instance, a recent survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed Karzai with 44 percent, up from 31 percent in May. But his closest rival, Dr. Abdullah, the candidate for the largest opposition bloc, the National Front, showed the biggest increase, polling 26 percent, nearly four times his support in May. If this surge in support for Abdullah continues and if Karzai's other rival Ashraf Ghani maintains his modest 6 percent support base, then a second round becomes a real possibility. In this respect, if the independent candidate Bashardost manages to get 10 percent of the vote, which polls suggest, a second round is sure to happen.

A second round, which could take place in October, will complicate further the already complicated situation in Afghanistan. Firstly, it will create a certain amount of political uncertainty and will suggest that Karzai's support has been eroding among the Afghan people, thereby decreasing Karzai's political clout further. Secondly, it will affect the security situation. Thirdly, it will leave little time to focus on improving conditions in the country before next summer, the time by which US officials say progress in Afghanistan should be judged. Fourthly, it will leave only a limited time to convince both the US public and the international community that it is worth increasing their commitments to Afghanistan, which of course is the last thing anybody wants.

That is why the elections are a new and important turning point both for Afghanistan and the international community, which has invested so much, politically, militarily and otherwise.

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