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Polling Comes to Afghanistan, Suggesting Limit to Sway of President Karzai

KABUL, Afghanistan — In the 12 years since the United States helped oust the Taliban, Afghanistan has held four national elections. But Afghans are only now experiencing a phenomenon that has been upending conventional wisdom in more established democracies for decades: polling.

Three recent polls are giving Afghans a crash course in front-runners, horse-race coverage and candidates who eagerly dismiss any numbers that do not put them out front, topics familiar to Americans.

With the focus on fighting a war and rebuilding the country, there has been little publicly available polling done here for the two presidential and two parliamentary elections.

But now, before the presidential vote in April, Afghans are finding out which politicians have popular appeal ahead of the voting. How the information plays out remains to be seen, but it appears that Afghans — and the Western diplomats who are watching the campaign — would do well to heed an axiom of electoral politics: Do not trust the conventional wisdom.

Exhibit A appears to be the ability of President Hamid Karzai to influence the election. The widely held view in Kabul is that the candidate Mr. Karzai decides to back will be favored to win. As the sole elected leader in Afghan history, he is uniquely influential in a country where politics center on personalities, not political parties. At the same time, he controls the machinery of the state — the police, a growing bureaucracy, even the schools.

Most of the candidates appear to believe they need his support. Of the 11 men currently running, 10 have sought his blessing and support. But Mr. Karzai has yet to endorse any of them.

Even if he does, a poll conducted for the State Department by Glevum Associates, a research company based in Washington, indicates that the ability to influence voters simply by endorsing a candidate may be far more limited than most here believe.

Among the 2,148 likely voters surveyed by Glevum, 85 percent said they would not be swayed if Mr. Karzai decided to endorse a candidate or that it would not matter. The poll, conducted through face-to-face interviews and obtained ahead of its release on Sunday, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus about two percentage points.

The poll results did not offer a clear sense of what accounted for Mr. Karzai’s apparently limited influence. In many respects, those polled seemed to want a candidate much like Mr. Karzai: 61 percent would vote for someone who wanted to open talks with the Taliban, 51 percent thought it was important to have good relations with Pakistan and 71 percent wanted positive relations with the United States, as the Afghan leader says he does.

Yet his refusal to sign a deal that would keep American and European troops here beyond next year did not appear entirely unpopular, according to the poll. Only 40 percent of those surveyed said it was important that candidates wanted to keep foreign forces here after 2014.

Nearly 90 percent said they would not vote for a candidate with a history of corruption. But almost every candidate has faced allegations of graft, and the Afghan government is considered among the world’s most corrupt.

Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for the president, said neither he nor Mr. Karzai had seen the poll. But “these polls are a new experience for Afghans,” he said. “People are suspicious about why they are being done, about the possible motivations behind them.”

Mr. Karzai has no plans to endorse any candidate, Mr. Faizi said, adding that the president wanted only to see a peaceful election “that is free of influence from the government — and interference from outside of Afghanistan, as well.”

Mr. Karzai is particularly fearful of interference from the United States, which he believes tried to unseat him in the 2009 elections.

American officials insist that their sole intention is to help Afghanistan, not get involved in its politics. The poll was intended “to help promote inclusive, credible, and transparent elections in Afghanistan,” the United States Embassy in Kabul said in a statement.

An American diplomat said that the survey was the first of nine planned polls conducted by three different companies. The United States was paying for polls because most Afghan institutions lacked the wherewithal and the money to do polling themselves.

“We realize it’s a new phenomenon, but it is not directed against anyone here, including President Karzai,” said the diplomat, who discussed the thinking behind releasing the poll only on the condition of anonymity.

But Mr. Karzai may well have reason to view the poll favorably. It found that the front-runner, with support from 29 percent of those surveyed, was Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank expert who was most recently one of the president’s aides. Mr. Ghani is among three candidates Mr. Karzai is considering backing, said Afghans close to him.

Abdullah Abdullah, a candidate in 2009 and an opposition leader, was supported by 25 percent in the survey. The rest of the candidates all polled under 10 percent, with three in a statistical tie for third place. They included Zalmay Rassoul, a former foreign minister who was seen as an early leading candidate largely on the belief that he had Mr. Karzai’s backing.

Mr. Ghani’s rise to the top of the field represents another chip away at the conventional wisdom that had developed here in the absence of any solid numbers. Mr. Ghani’s previous run for the presidency, in 2009, yielded about 2 percent of the vote and earned him a reputation as an out-of-touch technocrat whose constituency consisted largely of Western diplomats.

The two other polls, both of which were released in the past week, put Mr. Ghani in second place. The more respected of the two, by Democracy International, a group based in the United States that promotes democracy, found that 25 percent of the 2,500 people surveyed would vote for Mr. Ghani if the election were held the day they were questioned. Mr. Abdullah, who ran second in 2009, was out front with 31 percent. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus about two percentage points, and the poll was conducted through face-to-face interviews.

The Democracy International poll also found that 86 percent of Afghans surveyed had confidence in Mr. Karzai.

The third poll by Tolo News, an Afghan television channel, and ATR Consulting, a research company in Kabul, placed the candidates in roughly the same order as Democracy International. Though Tolo’s telephone poll was far less exhaustive — it released only results ranking the candidates — its poll has garnered the most attention in Afghanistan. Tolo is the most-watched network here, and the candidates who placed near the bottom of the pack in its survey were quick to lash out.

“The poll was full of bias in favor of one particular candidate,” said Said Hussain Alimi Balkhi, a vice-presidential candidate. His running mate, Gul Agha Shirzai, a former warlord and provincial governor, polled in the low single digits in all three surveys.

Mr. Balkhi did not specify which candidate he was talking about, but he suggested that Tolo had been paid off — an allegation familiar to Mr. Shirzai, who has been accused of corruption and opium trafficking by Afghan and Western officials.

Mr. Shirzai is far from the only member of the political elite who stands accused of corruption, and each of the four elections since 2001 has been marred by ballot stuffing and other irregularities.

In Afghanistan, “everyone goes into an election thinking they’re the front-runner when they’ve got 8 percent of the vote,” said Andrew Garfield, the president of Glevum. “It’s harder to steal votes when everyone knows how much support you really have.”

30 Dec 2013

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