KABUL, Afghanistan — In an effort to offset Afghan President Hamid Kazai's deals with various tribal factions, his rival presidential candidates are hoping to deny him a majority in the Aug. 20 election, then coalesce around one leading opposition candidate in a runoff.
By announcing their strategy, Karzai's rivals hope to counteract the widespread belief here that the vote inevitably will be rigged in his favor — despite the colorful campaign posters that plaster blast walls, doorways and car windows with pithy slogans.
Whether the runoff plan will work is anything but clear. There are 41 presidential candidates, including two women, a former Taliban commander, several former Karzai cabinet ministers, and an Afghan-American who volunteered for President Barack Obama's election campaign. Political parties here are weak, and the candidates' agendas show little agreement.
Indeed, some candidates already are hinting that they won't throw their support to a rival unconditionally. The coalition "can only happen if they agree with my agenda for change," said Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister and a leading presidential candidate.
The strategy makes the election a referendum on Karzai's tenure, one that even American officials, who once were among his strongest backers, characterize as ineffective and corrupt.
"We have one competitor, and we are focused on the one competitor," said another leading presidential candidate and potential Karzai rival in a runoff, Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister.
In the past three months, Karzai has reached deals around the country with a bevy of influential tribal leaders and elders, making various promises in exchange for them pushing for their followers to vote for him. Some think he's also made deals with Taliban leaders.
"Karzai is trying to win in the first round because he knows the risk that comes with the second round," said Wahed Mughzada, a political analyst. "He has a lot of tricks, and he is using them now."
Karzai won election in 2004 in the first round with 56 percent of the vote. One of the few national polls held here, conducted in early May by the German-funded National Centre for Policy Research at Kabul University, found that Karzai has 23 percent support; then Karzai's former Minister of Planning Ramzan Bashardost, with 12 percent; and Abdullah next, with 10 percent. Ghani has the backing of 4 percent.
"The reasons people give for supporting Karzai is that while there are difficulties in Afghanistan there is not a better alternative," said Hamidullah Noor Ehad the center's director.
American officials, tired of what they think is Karzai's unwillingness to crack down on corruption and his criticism of U.S. military actions, feel much the same way.
Candidates are either too close to Iran or Pakistan, too affiliated with Karzai's government, show no promise of ending corruption or don't enjoy enough tribal support. Publicly, American officials stress the U.S. isn't backing any candidate; privately they're resigned to a Karzai victory.
Despite the vast number of candidates, some here think there won't even be a runoff. As Aug. 20 nears, they expect candidates to drop out, leaving the ballot with something like 10 candidates, not 41.
If that happens, voters are likely to vote for Karzai. Even in a runoff, Karzai benefits from a sense of inevitability.
"Everyone will run to who they think will win," said Abdul Hamid Mobarez, a political analyst and president of the Afghanistan National Journalists Union. "Even in the second round."
Most of the candidates are "really only running to make deals" for themselves and their interest groups, said Nasrallah Starikzay, a political science professor at Kabul University. "Only the serious ones will have enough election money to stay until the end. . . . And if that happens, Karzai will likely win."
Ironically, a Karzai victory in the first round could create problems, some analysts said. Few people here believe Karzai enjoys enough support to win in the first round. If he does, many will cry fraud.
"If there is no runoff, it could create a crisis, and if there is a run off, there could be crisis as the Taliban and other people try to influence the election," said Mughzada, the political analyst.
The Independent Electoral Commission has set aside $223 million for next month's election, allotting some of that money for a runoff. They concede, however, that holding the first round alone will be challenging. Some areas are too dangerous for voters and observers to go. Also, there are allegations of voter fraud and strong-arming. So far, voters and politicians alike already are charging that the process isn't legitimate.
"We are limited in what we can do. We will try to do our best to have the best election," said IEC President Azizulah Lodin. "In the end, one person will be happy and 40 will make allegations" of fraud.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow national security developments at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks
McClatchy Newspapers 2009