An Inauguration with no President: What’s Karzai’s Next Move?

Stories that the palace is currently in decoration mode for the inauguration scheduled for Sept 2 (see RFL here) are pushing the electoral process to a tipping point.  With both candidates having withdrawn from the auditing process (see the WSJ here), it seems ridiculous to think that the process may be done by Sept 1 and frankly bordering on inconceivable that it will be done in a manner that both candidates accept.  We’ve discussed this foot dragging and the benefits of instability for the political elite before and an Economist editorial today echoes many of the sentiments we’ve been pushing over the past month (see in particular here and here and here).  The editorial begins “It seems everyone wants the Afghan presidential election to be over and done with. Except, maybe, for the two contenders.”  (read the rest here)

The missing part of the analysis is Karzai.  He has benefited from the delay as well, helping rehabilitate his image somewhat domestically and internationally (it’s as if he’s now able to say to voters, you came out in such numbers because you thought I was doing a bad job, now look at the mess these two fools are making), all while continuing to reap the benefits of being at the center of a massive web of government patronage.  In the meantime, he has been publicly rather quiet about the process, other than vague calls for the process to speed up.  It seems fairly clear that he supports fellow Pashtun Ghani, but he has  not been vocal about this.  Setting a date and beginning preparations for the inauguration, however, is going to force a change in the process in one way or another.

This could take a variety of forms: Karzai could simply declare Ghani president since his lead is so wide and push his inauguration.  He could try to declare some sort of state emergency and declare himself president or give himself some sort of care taking position, or he could declare some outsider “interim” president, setting up a temporary government (essentially the thing he just expelled an NYT writer for writing about (see here)).

It’s important to note that all of these results would be unconstitutional (though it would be possible for Karzai to try to put some sort of constitutional gloss on them and if the international community is onboard, the media may go along as well).  However, Afghan voters are sick of the current indecision that is damaging the economy (see here), so they might just tolerate such an illegal work around.  It probably will demand more acquiescence from the two candidates than the 8 million voters – more evidence how far this election has slid down the ideal democracy mountain.

Karzai has been underestimated by the international community many times before, most notably when Holbrooke initially tried to move US support away from him in the lead up to the 2009 vote, so it would not be surprisingly if he had another card or two up his sleeve.  If he maintains the Sept 2 inauguration date, however, we’ll soon find out at least a little more about what he has in mind and whether we should be preparing for more years of the Karzai regime….

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