Removal of Karzai Poster Stirs Political Pot

By Dow Jones Business News, 

By Habib Khan Totakhil and Nathan Hodge

KABUL-- In the U.S. presidential election of 2000, the hanging chad was the symbol of a messy outcome of the Florida recount. In Afghanistan, a window-sized poster of President Hamid Karzai has become the emblem of a protracted fight over who will be become the country's next leader.

On Monday, Afghanistan'sIndependent Election Commission declared preliminary results in a runoff to elect a successor to Mr. Karzai. In first place: former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, with 56.4% of the ballots cast.

That didn't sit well with the apparent runner-up, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who garnered 43.6% of the votes in what election authorities say is an early result, subject to change. He rejected the preliminary results and declared his own team as victorious, deepening an already serious crisis.

A day after the announced preliminary results, angry supporters of Mr. Abdullah tore down a giant poster of Mr. Karzai ahead of a speech by Mr. Abdullah in the Loya Jirga hall, an important venue in Kabul for national gatherings.

Mr. Karzai's portrait, which depicts the president wearing his signature fur karakul cap , presides over the hall. And when Mr. Abdullah's supporters tore down the photo--and put up a poster of their candidate in its place--the images quickly went viral on Afghan social media. A lively debate ensued about respecting the president's image.

"Tearing down Karzai's poster showed disrespect to the entire nation", said Najma Zala, an Afghan youth activist. Added Ms. Zala: "President Karzai is elected by Afghans and he has to be respected."

Fridoon Kazimi, an Abdullah supporter, disagreed.

"Abdullah is the legitimate president of this country and all Karzai posters must be replaced with Abdullah's," he said in a Facebook post. "Tearing down the Karzai poster was the right thing to do. He is no longer the president."

Perhaps more than anything, the incident showed the degree to which Afghanistan's younger generation has taken the election debate online. But equally important, it underscored the symbolic legacy that Mr. Karzai will leave, if the democratic transition--the first in the country's history--is successful, and the president peacefully cedes power.

Following the incident, many Afghan Facebook and Twitter users changed their profile photos to images of Mr. Karzai. Some called on the government to protect the president's prestige. Mr. Abdullah also weighed in on the issue.

"I say from the bottom of my heart that tearing down President Karzai's poster wasn't a good deed," he told supporters, visibly upset.

But that wasn't the end of the story. A few hours after the poster was torn down, Zubair Massood, the son of Ahmad Zia Masood, a prominent Afghan politician who supports Mr. Ghani, put up a replacement photo. Photos of Mr. Masood, the nephew of legendary ethnic Tajik guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Masood, restoring the poster also circulated on social media. The younger Mr. Massood drew both praise and criticism online.

Later that same night, an apparent group of Abdullah supporters, some of whom were believed to be armed, broke into the guarded hall. They took Mr. Karzai's photo down once again and posted video of the incident online.

No one was injured in the second assault on the poster, but residents of Kabul who live near the hall confirmed they heard shots fired in the vicinity late Tuesday night.

Zubair Massood put up another poster in the hall on Wednesday morning.

"If they take it down a hundred times, I'll put it back where it belongs, " he told The Wall Street Journal.

Not everyone was pleased.

"The tearing down of President Karzai's poster by Abdullah supporters was an emotional and inappropriate act," said Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Mr. Abdullah. "But at the same time, the reinstallation of the photo by Zubair Masood wasn't a wise decision."

Mr. Karzai's portrait continues to hang in government offices around the country.

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