Flanked By Foreign Dignitaries, Karzai Announces A Runoff 

Two months to the day after Afghanistan's badly flawed presidential elections, the stalemate is over.

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai bowed to international pressure on Tuesday and announced that Afghanistan would hold a runoff election on Nov. 7.

The voting, which comes after weeks of mounting allegations of voter fraud, will pit Karzai against the second-place finisher and former foreign secretary, Abdullah Abdullah.

Flanked by the cream of the international diplomatic corps and a foreign dignitary or two, the Afghan president beamed as he hailed the decision as a victory for the democratic process.

"We welcome the decision as legitimate, legal and according to the constitution," said Karzai. "It will strengthen the process of democratization. It will be an historic period we are waiting to go through."

The decision the Afghan president was referring to was a rather grudging press release issued by the Independent Election Commission just minutes before Karzai's press conference.

"The Independent Election Commission ... has determined that his Excellency Hamid Karzai has received 49.67 percent of the total valid votes and is recognized as the leading candidate ... Although the IEC has some reservations regarding the decisions of the Electoral Complaints Commission ... considering time constraints, the imminent arrival of winter and existence of problems in the country, announces that the second round of the elections will be held on 7th November of this year."

The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) yesterday ordered the IEC to disqualify some 1.3 million votes, which brought Karzai under the 50-percent-plus-one threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Up until the ECC decision, Karzai was claiming a first-round victory with some 55 percent of the vote. According to the ECC report, Abdullah received 31 percent of the vote.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Afghan president were U.S. Senator John Kerry, U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide, and the ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

It was a ringing endorsement for a president who up until a few hours before the event was seen as intransigent and obstructionist in the face of overwhelming evidence that the victory he claimed had been the result of fraud. He had staunchly resisted calls for a runoff, necessitating frantic international diplomacy by Kerry, among others.

"[The president] has shown statesmanship by deciding to move forward, by embracing the constitution and the rule of law," said Kerry, warmly shaking hands with Karzai in front of the cameras. "[This] will allow the government to lead with legitimacy."

Kerry acknowledged that he had spent many hours with the Afghan president in recent days, and that the "deliberations were lengthy and sometimes difficult."

But in the end, he said, "the Afghan people have taken a significant step towards a better future."

Curiously absent from the speeches of the principals was any reference to the reason the election process has been so long and contentious: the massive fraud that the ECC determined had taken place throughout the country, particularly in the south.

Indeed, Karzai went out of his way to question those findings and to challenge the ECC, hinting at future retribution for those who questioned the first-round results.

"The Afghan elections have been defamed," he said. "There were 1.3 million votes called 'suspicious,' most of which were in the south. The people's votes are not blamed. We must deeply investigate why the people's votes were disrespected. But this is not the time for investigations. This is the time for stability and national unity."

Karzai also refused to give up his claim to have won outright in the Aug. 20 elections. His decision to hold a runoff was due entirely to his concern for the Afghan people, he said.

"We will leave it to the Afghan people to decide who the winner was [in the first round]," he said. "Whether I was the winner or not, I prefer the interests of Afghanistan to my own personal interests."

Kai Eide expressed his pride in the U.N.'s efforts during the election, which, he said, without a hint of irony, "have led us to where we are today."

The U.N. in general, and Kai Eide in particular, have been the focus of a tremendous amount of controversy over the past weeks. Eide's deputy, Peter Galbraith, publicly accused Eide of covering up fraud in the elections to benefit Karzai. Galbraith was sacked by Eide in late September, and has been conducting a loud and bitter campaign against his former boss since his departure from Kabul.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the distant fourth-place runner-up in the elections, had few good words to say about the U.N. in his talk before the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 15.

"No one is going to call [the first election] fair or legitimate," he said. "The United Nations dropped the ball and a group of Afghans stole the election. Lessons to be learned in the future is that the United Nations cannot be trusted to conduct free and fair elections."

This is unfortunate, since the same bodies who oversaw the first round of elections will have to cobble together a second vote in just over two weeks.

Ballot papers have already been printed, and some preparations have been made. Kerry emphasized several times during the press conference that the international community and ISAF stood ready to guarantee security.

But everyone skirted around the issue of fraud.

One election expert expressed serious doubt that the runoff would accomplish its unstated but widely understood purpose: to erase the stigma of illegitimacy that hung over Karzai after the first election.

"It could well be even worse," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There will be few or no international observers, the turnout will be miniscule, security could be terrible and, in the end, Karzai will win anyway."

There is little doubt of Karzai's eventual success, especially in the higher reaches of the diplomatic community. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN just days ago that "the likelihood of [Karzai] winning a second round is probably pretty high."

It remains to be seen how many Afghans will go to the polls on Nov. 7. Disaffection is rampant among voters, many of whom have observed the past two months of wrangling with something close to disgust.

"The foreigners will decide everything anyway," said one young journalist, watching the panoply of dignitaries surrounding Karzai at Tuesday's press conference.

But there are some who see the runoff as the only way to redeem democracy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans.

"I think a second round is good for democracy in my country," said Asar Hakimi, a young journalist in Kabul. "Power will be in the hands of the people, not warlords and ethnic leaders."

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