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Threats may be inevitable in a race in which at least five candidates are linked to private armies. Karzai's main rival, Yunus Qanooni, 43, is a former resistance leader who still commands loyalty from Tajik fighters in the north. In hundreds of the country's 5,000 polling stations, it will be Qanooni's men who stand guard, raising the prospect of intimidation. Many voters think that somehow the commanders will know whether they have betrayed them on the ballot. Says Sifton: "The vast majority of voters don't understand that their ballot will be kept secret." Karzai's supporters aren't above arm twisting either. In the eastern province of Khost, a group of 300 elders of the Terezay tribe threatened to torch the houses of anyone who doesn't cast his or her vote for the President.
Even without such threats, Karzai would win a first-round majority of 51% in a fair and free race, say international poll observers. Karzai is considered one of the few candidates who don't have blood on their hands from the bitter 1992-96 civil war. (Massouda Jalal, a plainspoken doctor and the sole woman in the field, is another.) Nor is Karzai pushing the interests of his fellow Pashtuns ahead of other ethnic groups. Pragmatic Afghans realize that foreign aid, which totaled $2.3 billion this year, might dry up if Karzai, who is well respected in the West, were to lose.
Karzai has some legitimate campaign challenges. A senior Afghan official says Iran, Russia and Pakistan are throwing money at different candidates. A Kabul black-market money changer claimed that the dollar's recent rise against the afghani, from 52 to 45, was due to the sudden influx of dollars. "In my village," says Fida Mohammed, who is from the Shomali Plain near Kabul, "our elders are seeing who offers us most before telling us how we should vote."
Alarmed by the possibility that Karzai might not win in the first round (experts say he would win a runoff against any single candidate), the President's supporters including the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad are scrambling to shore up votes. Senior Afghan officials, U.N. representatives and Western diplomats all claim that Khalilzad, an energetic Afghan American, is trying to induce several candidates including the President's main rival, Qanooni to drop out and throw their support behind Karzai. The ambassador denies that, even though one candidate, Mohammed Mohaqiq, went public with such an accusation. Khalilzad and Karzai dine together at least three times a week, palace insiders say, and many Afghans, by nature conspiratorially minded, are convinced that the election's outcome is rigged to favor Karzai.