Cablegate: Muted First Reactions to News of a Second Round

Published: Wed 21 Oct 2009 05:27 PM
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1. (U) Summary: Initial public and official reactions to
the October 20 announcement of a a run-off election between
President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah are initially
muted. Hitherto, widespread opposition cited the insecurity
and seeming illogic of a runoff; responses now are
predictably mixed, ranging from supportive to opposed, but
closest to skeptically resigned. We have seen no indication
of vigorous negative public reaction; in fact, the same kinds
of groups who opposed a runoff with protests in the recent
past are now promising to come out and vote. End Summary.
2. (SBU) A pre-election snapshot in war-torn central Logar
province captures the mood the day before the announcement,
when PRT military and civilian officers walked through the
Pul-e-Alam market. None of the twenty individuals the
officers spoke with favored a run-off, regardless of whether
they had voted on August 20; exasperation was the common
sentiment. Comments included:
-- This country has become a political boxing ring. One
round was enough.
-- If 10% of the registered voters turn out for a runoff, we
should all dance for joy.
-- These elections are giving us a headache. It's taking too
long to decide a run off. Participation will be much lower,
but I will take part.
-- The money for a second round would better be spent on the
-- Karzai had 54% of the vote until the international
community said it needed a better partner and remarkably his
vote count has dropped to 47%. See how bad this looks?
-- I have to risk my life to vote AGAIN?
3. (U) After the October 20 announcement, BBC's Pashto
Service interviewed four or five local people from Kabul
city. Most said they found the second round unacceptable and
did not believe a run-off to be in the best interest of
Afghanistan. Dari Radio Killid also interviewed a small
number of Kabulites. All said they would definitely vote in
the next round, even if it meant risk to their personal
safety. (Note: Although this may not sound like much of
sample, it is worth keeping in mind that radio is still the
primary news medium in Afghanistan and influences public
perception more broadly than either newspapers or TV.)
4. (U) Editorials in Kabul dailies have not been overly
enthusiastic about the runoff. Three of five - Cheragh
(independent), Hewad (state-run), Hasht-e-Sobh (independent),
Weesa (privately-owned), and Daily Afghanistan (independent)
- accused 'foreign control' of being at work. However, even
Weesa said that although "our people have been betrayed"
Afghans should turn out in record numbers to vote. Weesa
also reported that people in the southern provinces of
Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul, Kandahar, Paktiya, and Ghazni are
requesting the Independent Election Commission (IEC) issue
new voting cards because the Taliban had either intimidated
them into throwing them away or had confiscated them.
5. (U) The independent Daily Afghanistan focused on the
logistical challenges inherent in this second round, while
independent Hasht-e-Sobh commended President Karzai for his
decision and urged that the election be held as transparently
as possible. State-run daily Hewad played the Pashtun card,
missing the point that fraudulent votes had no one behind
them, saying, "Foreigners demonstrated their power in these
elections. But, we wish they had demonstrated this power in
the fight against terrorism rather than against the votes of
people. What is very surprising is that nearly one million
of the 1,300,000 votes nullified were cast in south, meaning
these votes were cast by Pashtuns. This is an insult to the
people of the south."
6. (SBU) A local Afghan driver told us what we have heard
many times, namely that the majority of poor Afghans do not
care who wins this election; they just want an end to it.
Afghan researchers at a respected civil organization, the
Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), told us they
agreed with some of the criticism in the press and on
television concerning "foreign interference" in the election.
They voiced concerns about a "unity" government, commenting
that any sharing of power will devolve into a power grab that
would exacerbate ethnic tensions and result in more, not
less, corruption and abuse of government. According to these
researchers, even people disenchanted with Karzai do not
think Abdullah will reach across ethnic lines as Karzai has
done. Regarding turnout, they believe it will be harder to
get people to vote this time around, but think people will
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ultimately vote. When queried why reaction to the
announcement seems so muted, the researchers echoed the Kabul
driver: The people are resigned; they want it to be over;
and Afghans still look to their leaders to tell them how to
react. Left to themselves, the people will not demonstrate in
the streets.
7. (SBU) In Abdullah Abdullah's October 21 press
conference, he thanked Karzai for accepting the results and
stressed the need to guarantee the transparency and security
of the run-off election. He alluded to changes he will
propose to the IEC. We later learned that Abdullah might ask
the international community to replace IEC members Ludin and
Najafi with two 'impartial' people since they are widely seen
as pro-Karzai.
8. (U) The Free and Fair Elections Foundation of
Afghanistan (FEFA), the leading Afghan civil society
elections observer group, issued a statement welcoming the
assessment of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC),
supporting the run-off, and candidates' acceptance of that,
and expressing confidence that the fraud investigation and
resulting run-off will ultimately help restore people's trust
in the process and their government.
9. (SBU) Some official Pashtun reaction has been
predictably negative, but hopeful signs suggest that the
emotional intensity surrounding these events may dissipate
and officials will turn to getting out the vote. Shukria
Barakzai, an outspoken Pashtun MP from Kandahar told Radio
Azadi that a run-off is unfair, unjust, and had been decided
as a result of political pressure. Barakzai was one of 40
mostly Pashtun MP's who urged President Karzai as late as the
morning of October 20 not to accept a second round. By
October 21, while still blaming the international community
for pushing a second round despite Karzai's obvious
first-round win, Barakzai was telling us in private that
Karzai might get even more votes in the run-off as Pashtuns
would probably rally round him out of sympathy and
10. (U) According to Pajhwok Afghan News Agency Pashtun
tribal elders in Kandahar said they will support Karzai and
would respect the decision of the IEC. Ironically, we are
likely to see the same groups that recently were
demonstrating against a second round get instructed to bring
out the vote.
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