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Bribes and backroom deals: Inside the Afghan election Add to ...

A few months ago, a dozen leaders from Kandahar's most influential Pashtun tribes called a meeting to decide whom to support in this presidential election.

They did not waver: Fed up with years of violence and corruption under Hamid Karzai's government, they chose to throw their support behind Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister of mixed descent, who has emerged as a serious contender.

In Kandahar, it proved a difficult decision. The Karzai family wields enormous power in this Pashtun heartland, which is effectively ruled by his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who heads its provincial council.

So the tribal leaders travelled to Kabul for a secret meeting with Dr. Abdullah, who, pleasantly surprised, gave them $15,000 to open a campaign office in a small rented house in Kandahar city. A few weeks later it was shut down.

"Wali called them to his compound," a tribal leader with intimate knowledge of the meeting told The Globe and Mail.

"He gave them $20,000 and said, 'change sides,' so they did."

Such is the state of affairs in Kandahar province, which has emerged as the key to Thursday's presidential election.

Seeking a second term, Mr. Karzai was counting on his ethnic affiliations in Kandahar to deliver a victory.

For months Wali, acting as his brother's de facto campaign manager, has been courting Kandahari tribal leaders' support, paying for cars and security to shuttle them from remote villages to the city, where, over a traditional Afghan meal, he seeks a promise of votes.

However, with Taliban threats and support for the opposition eroding his traditional support base, the Karzais have found themselves struggling to secure an outright win.

As election day draws near, charges of vote rigging have emerged against supporters of the Afghan President, in some cases against the Karzai family itself.

Allegations of fraud have already clouded the credibility of this election and fuelled threats of mass demonstrations in the north if Mr. Karzai's win is considered illegitimate.

The discussion among analysts, both Afghan and Western, revolves around "acceptable levels" of voting irregularities, an indication of just how persistent the problem is in a country where much of the population lives in remote areas, difficult to access in the best of times, much less observe on voting day.

The Karzai camp has denied any fraud, countering with their own charges against Dr. Abdullah's campaign. Local human-rights groups have documented irregularities from both sides.

However, Abdul Khaliq, Dr. Abdullah's campaign manager in Kandahar, said even if both sides were playing dirty, Mr. Karzai's alleged abuse of power was of particular concern to Afghanistan and the West.

"All of the government belongs to them, and all of the administration of the government are helping them. The money and the facilities are with them," said Mr. Khaliq, who, before joining Dr. Abdullah, had become disillusioned by "nepotism and narcotics" as a Karzai-appointed district commissioner.

He cited a brazen rally held by Dr. Abdullah last week in Kandahar city, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, which has been the centre of an insurgency that Canadian Forces in southern Afghanistan have struggled to suppress.

A group of villagers from remote villages in Boldak, south of Kandahar city, said a group of the government's frontier police stopped them en route to the rally, blocking their bus, shouting abuses and sending them back home.

"They said if you go to the meeting we will beat you. They stopped all the cars and vehicles," said Mahmad Ayoub Khan, an elder from the Achakzai tribe.

Mr. Khan said come election day, his tribesmen will fear the frontier police as much as the Taliban. "Maybe even more," he added, with some thought.

Other tribal elders who support Dr. Abdullah say they will not be intimidated, even though they might be branded disloyal and punished if Mr. Karzai gets re-elected.

Haji Sharin Khan, a tribal leader of the Alakozai tribe in the Zhari district, said he would rather vote with his heart, and risk the consequences: "Yes, we are unhappy that we might be punished. We are concerned about these problems, but we want Dr. Abdullah. Maybe something will happen, but this is our right, to vote for who we want," he said.

As Wali Karzai attempts to broker ceasefire deals with local Taliban commanders, some tribe leaders see his efforts as proof of his connections to the insurgency, or a self-serving attempt to get out the vote for his brother.

As it stands, election officials say most of Kandahar's 17 districts will be secure enough for polling stations to open, listing only two as "outside government control."

Independent election observers, however, are more pessimistic, predicting that more than half of provincial districts will succumb to violence.

In Kandahar, the voter registration process has been rife with corruption. Cards have been handed out to non-existent voters, with women accounting for a disproportionate number of names on the list of eligible voters, including one "Britney Jamila Spears."

There are also claims, difficult to verify, that some tribal leaders have bought voter registration cards with cash and phone cards, provided by Mr. Karzai's family.

Sath Mohammad, a 42-year-old shopkeeper in Kandahar, rejected offers of cash and free lunch to attend meetings of the Karzai and Abdullah campaign.

"Last election I saw one tribe leader take hundreds of election papers, stamp them and put them in the box. Hundreds of papers. I believe that will happen again this time," said Mr. Mohammad, whose Barakzai tribe is from Dand district.

He supports Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat and former ally of Mr. Karzai who holds third place in the polls.

Asked if he would vote on Thursday, Mr. Mohammad replied: "I will try."

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