The threat of violence looms over Afghan presidential election Thursday. And not just from Taliban militants.
Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who is President Hamid Karzai's top rival, told a crowd of flag-waving supporters in Kabul on Monday that he will win the election — "if they don't steal your votes," confident rhetoric that analysts say could stoke a violent backlash if his supporters believe they've been cheated.
Serious questions over the fairness of the balloting could result in a winner without real legitimacy — a serious problem in a country where the central government is struggling to exert control beyond the capital. The U.S. is spending millions of dollars and pressing a new military offensive this month to make sure the voting comes off well.
Abdullah, a trained ophthalmologist who has railed against government corruption, isn't the only one who expects fraud. Voting observers warn that cheating will most likely take place at polling stations in remote or dangerous areas where independent monitors won't be able to be present.
A black market for voter registration cards is said to be flourishing, and a suspiciously high number of women — far more than men — have been registered to vote in culturally conservative provinces where Karzai expects to do well among his fellow ethnic Pashtuns who form the majority there.
Abdullah's core group of supporters — ethnic Tajiks — have taken to the streets before. In May 2006, a U.S. military truck crashed into a line of vehicles, sparking riots by hundreds of Tajiks who rampaged through Kabul. About 20 people were killed in the crash and subsequent unrest.
Abdullah's campaign manager was quoted last month as predicting street violence if Abdullah doesn't win, contending that Karzai can't prevail unless he steals the vote — an allegation similar to those which triggered violent protests in Afghanistan's western neighbor, Iran, after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in the June 12 balloting.
Stump rhetoric includes 'fraud'
Following an uproar over his comments, campaign manager Abdul Satar Murad said he was misquoted. But the language he purportedly used is almost the same Abdullah now employs on the stump.
"If there is no fraud in the election, it is clear for the nation who the winner will be and who the next president will be — if they don't steal your votes," Abdullah told thousands of supporters at Kabul's main sports stadium on Monday, the last day of the two-month campaign. Thousands of supporters energetically waved baby blue flags as Abdullah spoke, but most of the stadium's seats sat empty.
Murad told The Associated Press afterward that Abdullah's prediction of victory is correct, but that he is not stoking violence among supporters in the case of a loss.
"Indeed they will not do that," Murad said. "They will be watching the process, and if things are fair and impartial, this (an electoral defeat) is part of the game. ... There are diplomatic channels to go through and express your feelings."
Peaceful protests, though, are not part of Afghanistan's history, said Haroun Mir, the director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies.
"Unfortunately, in any demonstration in Afghanistan's history, the demonstration comes with violence, and if the result of the election is not acceptable for one of the candidates, a candidate that has, say, 30 to 40 percent of the vote, if there is a protest it will be violent," Mir said, alluding to Abdullah.
U.S. and NATO military commanders are planning for this possibility. Most U.S. troops are stationed in the country's south and east, but the Americans have several quick reaction forces stationed in and around Kabul.
If Abdullah supporters believe the election is stolen, they aren't likely to go file protests with the country's Electoral Complaints Commission, because they will view the body as an arm of Karzai's government, said John Dempsey, a Kabul-based analyst with the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"Some angry mobs may smash things up, even attack people, but I don't think it's going to be too widespread, and I don't think it would be too long-lasting," Dempsey said.
Rumors of chopped fingers
On the other end of the spectrum, militant violence looms over the election as well. The Taliban have warned Afghans not to cast ballots, saying that voters might be the victims of attacks on polling sites.
Rumors have circulated that villagers with indelible ink on their fingers — a fraud prevention method to deter repeat voting — could be attacked, or even have their fingers chopped off. A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, has denied that militants would cut off fingers. But the Taliban is a loose collection of militant leaders, and individual insurgents could still carry out such attacks.
Militant threats in Afghanistan's south and east — where Taliban militants are strongest — could lower turnout among Karzai's fellow ethnic Pashtuns, boosting Abdullah's chances.
Recent opinion polls in Afghanistan point to a Karzai win, with the president leading Abdullah by about 20 percentage points. None of the polls, however, has Karzai with more than about 45 percent support, and the president needs 50 percent of the votes to avoid a two-person run-off, likely with Abdullah.
Abdullah's hard line and hints of street unrest could be a way to increase his standing if talks with Karzai to share or distribute power in a future government take place.
Such a deal would likely be welcomed by U.S. and other foreign powers that bankroll the Afghan government and are working to prop up its weak institutions. Karzai has already said that if he wins he will offer Abdullah and other top presidential hopefuls jobs in his government.