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Explainer: Afghanistan run-off cancelled

Karzai the winner... but what is the victory worth?

by Tony Cross

Article published on the 2009-11-02 Latest update 2009-11-02 15:14 TU

Abdullah Abdullah at a press conference at his home in August(Photo: Tony Cross)

Abdullah Abdullah at a press conference at his home in August
(Photo: Tony Cross)

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) has declared Hamid Karzai re-elected in the country's presidential election. But even the winner must now be asking whether this is a victory worth having.

Why no second round?

A cancellation looked probable after the first round runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out on Sunday 1 November, less than a week before the second round was due to take place.

But Abdullah went on to say that he was not calling for a boycott. That handed the decision as to whether to go ahead to the Election Commission, which he believes is packed with Karzai's placemen.

Abdullah's announcement appears to have induced panic in international diplomatic circles. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon turned up in Kabul on Monday. Before that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that the run-off could still go ahead, as did the Karzai camp.

Clinton said that Abdullah's withdrawal was a personal matter and even compared it to her decision to pull out of the race for the US presidency. It cannot really have slipped her mind that she withdrew from an attempt to gain her party's nomination, while Abdullah has withdrawn from a national election.

Although the Obama administration has had strong misgivings about Karzai since the beginning of its mandate, the US also reportedly has little confidence in Abdullah. Above all, it wants political stability after over two months of bitter controversy over fraud during the 20 August poll.

So Washington seems to have concluded that a second round, even if it were to be just a formality with only one candidate, would be the best way to salvage whatever credibility might still be left.

But diplomats on the ground, and probably the fractious military chiefs too, do not seem to have agreed. Anonymous sources have been busy pointing out to journalists that a runoff would cost money and lives, including those of soldiers in the international force, Isaf.

While Obama deliberates over whether to increase the US troop presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban have proved that they can strike against UN targets in the centre of Kabul. The deaths of more soldiers, foreign election observers, aid workers and/or diplomats would not make a favourable impression on an increasingly sceptical public in the US and in other countries with troops in Afghanistan.

The IEC, which has been lambasted by opposition politicians and which sacked UN mission deputy head Peter Galbraith, on Monday made the declaration that it had been trying to make for some time - that Karzai is the winner.

In doing so, IEC chairman Azizullah Ludin, whom Abdullah had wanted fired, pointed out, accurately, that Karzai was now the only candidate and, inaccurately, that he had "won the majority of votes in the first round".

Will this satisfy anyone?

Isaf and the Afghan security forces are probably happy not to have to police an election which would have been pretty much for show. International donors and local organisers are probably happy not to have to find the money - a "huge expense", according to Ludin - needed to run the poll.

If Abdullah, whose aides were said to be negotiating with Karzai's even after his announcement, hoped to win an important post in a coalition government, he now seems to have been disappointed.

However, he is now internationally known as the victim of fraud in this election, even if other candidates accuse his supporters of malpractice  and him of implication in war crimes in the past.

At 49, Abdullah can look forward to running in the next presidential election, if there is one. His chief problem now is that, although he is half-Pashtun, half-Tajik, most of his support has come from the Tajik ethnic group.

Karzai is no doubt happy to be declared re-elected at last. But how much authority does he have?

The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has confirmed that widespread fraud took place in the first round. Eyewitness reports and anecdotal evidence indicate that the ECC's official assessment underestimated the scale of malpractice.

The Abdullah camp, some of whom had to be restrained by their candidate from public protests, will not regard Karzai as having any legitimacy. That could mean even more problems for the central government's authority in the north and east of the country.

And the Taliban can now claim that the election was merely a show put on for the benefit of foreign powers and had nothing to do with Afghan traditions or Islamic teaching.

In the south and east, where their insurgency is strongest, are mainly Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan to which Karzai belongs. In these areas the election's outcome is likely to add to disillusion with a government seen as inefficient, corrupt and manipulated by foreign powers.

What now?

Abdullah says he will continue to fight for his country and says it is faced with a choice of being a "moderate Islamic country founded on democratic principles" or a Taliban or Al-Qaeda-type regime.

The idea of reforming government to introduce a chief executive, who would counterbalance presidential powers has been floated on several occasions by the Americans. Karzai presumably rejected it when he rejected attempts to foist a coalition with Abdullah on him. But it may return.

A loya jirga, the traditional assembly of tribal and local representatives, could be called to reform the constitution and try and break the political deadlock.

Or Karzai could carry on as before, hacking deals and balancing one potential rival against another, but now with Abdullah as an open and very disgruntled opponent.

There may be further attempts to induce so-called "moderate" Taliban to split off and join the government side, although Kabul's bargaining position is not exactly strong at the moment.

Obama may decide to send more troops and could even drop in on Afghanistan during his upcoming Asian tour, which starts on 12 November.

Meanwhile, corruption, drug trafficking, warlordism and Taliban insurgency look likely to continue.

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