A United Nations panel has ordered a run-off in Afghanistan’s presidential election, ruling that Hamid Karzai got less than fifty percent of the legitimate ballots cast and that nearly a third of the votes previously counted were fraudulent. It remains to be seen how Karzai and the West will respond.\
Matthew Green and Fazel Reshad for FT:
Fraud investigators ordered Afghan election officials on Monday to deny Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, an outright victory in the country’s flawed presidential poll, raising the chances that a prolonged election crisis may result in a run-off.
The findings of the United Nations-backed watchdog will fuel an escalating confrontation between Mr Karzai, who is adamant that he won the August 20 vote, and western powers embarrassed by evidence of massive rigging in their ally’s favour.
The US and its Nato partners are deferring a decision on whether to send more troops to confront the growing Taliban insurgency until the two-month-old dispute is resolved, fearing that the government that emerges will lack legitimacy.
An Electoral Complaints Commission, partly appointed by the UN, ordered the country’s Independent Election Commission to strike out hundreds of thousands of votes after conducting a partial recount. The ECC detailed its findings in a series of statements but did not present fresh tallies for the rival candidates. Democracy International, a consultancy, calculated that Mr Karzai’s total should be cut to about 48.29 per cent of the overall vote when adjusted for the recount process, taking him below the 50 per cent he needs to avoid a second round. Preliminary results gave Mr Karzai 54.6 per cent.
Diplomats say Mr Karzai has been resisting the investigation’s findings by putting pressure on the IEC to reject the complaints commission’s order. Mr Karzai appoints the top layer of managers in the IEC, which is has the legal authority to issue final election results. A senior IEC official said on Monday that intense discussions were under way at the organisation after Mr Karzai telephoned one of their members to urge them not to accept the ECC’s findings. “He was very upset,” the source said.
Nor is the West united:
Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, on Monday telephoned Mr Karzai and urged him to take “a statesmanlike approach” to the ECC’s decision. In a 15-minute conversation, Mr Brown told the Afghan president that he would have to enter the second round of an election contest if that was what the rules dictated and make a fresh attempt to unite the Afghan people.
While the US, UK and France have been pushing for both sides to accept the results of the recount, the prospect of a fresh vote providing a new target for the Taliban and possibly a repeat performance of the low turnout and fraud in the first round is an unpalatable one for the west. The onset of winter will create huge logistical problems.
In the US, the White House said it was “incredibly important” for the world to see a legitimate Afghan government. “It is now up to the Afghans to demonstrate they believe in that legitimacy as well,” said spokesman Robert Gibbs.
What this means, however, is anyone’s guess. NYT correspondent Sabrina Tavernise writes that the commission’s findings place Karzai “in direct conflict with his main backer, the United States, and threaten to pitch the country into a major constitutional crisis, should he decide to reject them altogether.”
The Obama administration registered its concern. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a top Obama ally and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, made an unplanned stop in Kabul on Monday night, and met Mr. Karzai in the presidential palace, “to continue his discussions and consultations,” according to a spokeswoman for the American Embassy in Kabul.
Given his close ties to the administration, we can presume that Kerry wasn’t freelancing here. But what were his instructions? Obviously, for Karzai to ignore the problem and simply declare himself the winner would be catastrophic for preserving the illusion of legitimacy. But a run-off isn’t a great outcome, either. Tavernise continues:
The coming winter weather and increasing insecurity in the south of the country would make holding a second round difficult, and many foreign officials have suggested that the two candidates might strike a power-sharing deal, something both candidates have denied.
“I still believe in terms of where we are politically; that it’s unlikely to be a second round,” one Western official who asked to remain anonymous said.
WSJ’s Gerald Seib went even further, writing in anticipation of today’s announcement.
A delay in the election could slow down the Obama administration’s decision about how many troops to send and what strategy to pursue. And that isn’t a good thing.
The second vote could appear as warped as the first. Afghans may not show up a second time, either because they’re jaundiced or because they’re afraid of attacks by the Taliban if they do so. The runoff may happen in such terrible winter weather that low turnout alone makes it less than credible. And, obviously, Karzai could lose, raising new uncertainties.
Politico‘s Laura Rosen and others have said an arrangement is being worked out to allow Karzai to keep the presidency with Abdullah getting a significant portfolio. And, surely, the denial by both sides that this is happening can not be considered dispositive.
Further, as Seib points out, “it’s also possible all this agonizing over the election matters more to outsiders than it does to Afghans. ” Not only is the central government less important in their daily lives that it seems from outside but, frankly, they’re not used to Western style democracy and may be willing to accept a few points of corruption as close enough. Especially since Karzai’s likely to win a two-way race, anyway.
But the United States and its NATO allies, already facing declining domestic support for the war, needs to have at least the illusion of legitimacy to work with here. Considering the bad alternatives on the table, a deal between Karzai and Abdullah, with a speech by the latter urging his supporters to back the new coalition government, may be the best outcome.
UPDATE (0826 20 October): Multiple sources are reporting that Karzai has accepted the run-off and scheduled it for November 7. See subsequent posts for further developments.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.