Afghan and Australian Elections
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JIM LEHRER: Now, two weekend elections thousands of miles from the United States, each with a decided American angle. First, the contest in Australia. The reporter is Ian Williams of Independent Television News. ( “Mickey mouse” theme song playing )
IAN WILLIAMS: Prize winners’ parade at the annual country show, one of those timeless and usually quite sedate events that marks life in rural South Australia. Though it’s not without a little excitement this year. Which Alexander Downer will be hoping is not a bad omen. He’s the local M.P.– Has been for 20 years, and as foreign minister is the international face of the country’s unpopular commitment to the Iraq War.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: We know that we have two choices with terrorism. We can cut and run. We can just abandon the fight against terrorism, or we can take them on and defeat them and for us as a government this is core business. We’ll take them on and we’re determined to defeat them.
IAN WILLIAMS: Though a majority of Australians oppose the war in Iraq, Prime Minister John Howard still insists, like Tony Blair, that removing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do, that the world is a safer place for it. But unlike the British prime minister, he’s been unapologetic about intelligence failures. He says his country’s contingent of 850 troops will stay in Iraq as long as they’re needed.
SPOKESMAN: It’s never the Australian way to look as though you might have been intimidated by terrorists, and it will never be the Australian way to let down our close friends and allies.
SPOKESMAN: So which button do I push?
IAN WILLIAMS: The new and pugnacious leader of the opposition Labor Party has pledged to pull all the troops out by Christmas.
SPOKESMAN: Fire again.
IAN WILLIAMS: And Mark Latham’s had his own memorable descriptions of Messieurs Howard and Bush.
SPOKESMAN: Mr. Howard and his government are just “yes” men to the United States. Bush himself is the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory.
IAN WILLIAMS: Latham has presented Australians with a stark choice on Iraq, but could yet be tripped up by concerns about his own volatile temperament, once breaking a taxi driver’s arm in a dispute over a fare. He is trying to sound more measured…
SPOKESPERSON: Mark Latham, clean-cut…
IAN WILLIAMS: …Though it hasn’t cut much ice on television comedy shows.
SPOKESMAN: The old Mark Latham is back. Hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, and more violent then ever before.
IAN WILLIAMS: Howard’s clearly hoping the booming economy will win him a fourth term, offsetting concerns about Iraq and that middle class voters will be put off by Latham’s commitment to redistribute the wealth and give concessions to trade unions. There’s little wonder this is being seen as something of a dry run for forthcoming elections in America and in Britain. And with just one day yet before Australia goes to the polls, the result is still too close to call.
JIM LEHRER: Next, Afghanistan. Interim President Hamid Karzai was appointed by a council of Afghans after the ouster of the Taliban three years ago. Now he’s running for election against 17 challengers; some ten million Afghans have registered to vote. Juliet Bremner of Independent Television News traveled from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif for this report.
JULIET BREMNER: From the chaos that is Kabul, the first shoots of law and order — nurtured by international money and manpower. The West needs these presidential elections to succeed and they see the capital as the key. Flying north, we headed to more troubled territory. I could glimpse a rugged country where warlords still wield power, removed from western influence. Mazar-e-Sharif lies at the center of a province the size of Scotland. Rival militias only recently reached a truce, now they’re being pushed towards the ballot box. There are just 350 international troops to cover this entire province. And while they’re not directly involved in the elections, they are supposed to make sure they run smoothly and safely. They’re up against an Afghan mentality that dictates you back the most powerful man or face the consequences, and all this against a backdrop of bomb threats from the Taliban and al-Qaida. Even the oldest haven’t taken part in this kind of election. The rules are unknown. Baryalai Ahmady’s job is to convince them they won’t be intimidated.
BARYALAI AHMADY, Election Supervisor: The other question was if we vote for somebody else we will be punished. Then we explain to them and we have told them different and many, many times hat voting is sacred. Nobody knows whom you vote for.
JULIET BREMNER: I traveled to one of the more remote villages to see if people were reassured. Sultan Mohammed Taraki has discussed his choice with his family and members of his mosque.
JULIET BREMNER: Do you feel free to vote the way you want to or do you think anyone’s put pressure on you to tell you how you must vote? “Everyone will vote for Hamid Karzai, the acting president, not the warlord who controls his region.” But the votes must be safe if this election is to work. The hastily trained Afghan army guard the counting center. The nightmare is that a lorry packed with explosives could wipe out this building. At the blue mosque, he says pigeons are turned into doves. Afghanistan wants these elections to transform their country into a peaceful democracy.
JIM LEHRER: It may take days or weeks to determine if President Karzai has won more than 50 percent of the vote or will have to face a runoff.