Kabul: Afghanistan’s election commission on Tuesday ordered a 7 November runoff in the disputed presidential poll after a fraud investigation dropped incumbent Hamid Karzai’s votes below 50% of the total. Karzai accepted the finding and agreed to a second round vote.
The announcement came two months to the day after the first round vote and follows weeks of political uncertainty at a time when Taliban strength is growing.
US President Barack Obama welcomed Karzai’s willingness to run in a new election against his main rival Abdullah Abdullah, saying his decision “established an important precedent for Afghanistan’s new democracy.”
The Afghan leader announced his agreement at a press conference alongside US Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the head of the UN in Afghanistan, Kai Eide - a sign of the intense international pressure which preceded the announcement.
“I hope that the international community and the Afghan government and all others concerned will take every possible measure to provide security to the people so that when they vote that vote is not called a fraud,” Karzai said.
Shortly before the press conference, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, said the commission, which organized the 20 August vote, did not want to “leave the people of Afghanistan in uncertainty” any longer.
“The commission is agreed to go to a second round and say that nobody got more than 50%,” Lodin said. Afghan electoral law says a runoff is needed if no candidate gets above that percentage.
Lodin said all the materials are ready for the 7 November runoff.
Kerry said the agreement on a second round had transformed the crisis into a “moment of great opportunity,” praising Karzai foor “genuine leadership in the decision he has made today.”
The decision to accept the fraud findings and move to a run-off showed that Afghanistan “recommits to the democratic process.” He complimented Karzai for his “openness to finding ways of resolving differences.”
“The international community is 100% committed to helping to carry out this election,” Kerry said.
The possibility of a runoff emerged on Monday after a UN-backed panel threw out a third of Karzai’s votes from the 20 August ballot, pushing his totals below the 50% threshold needed for a first round victory.
The election commission said Karzai won 49.7% of the August vote, higher than independent calculations but still below the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. The commission decided to announce a runoff for 7 November despite “some reservations” regarding the fraud findings and concerns over “time constraints, the imminent arrival of winter and existence of the problems in the country.”
One option to avoid a run-off was a power-sharing deal, though the form that could take is unclear. And it could take weeks or months to hammer out an agreement between the two rivals. Karzai ruled out a coalition government, telling reporters “there is no space for a coalition government in the law.”
Earlier, a spokesman for Abdullah said the foreign minister still sees a second-round vote as the best option.
That means the United States is still far from finding a government it can point to as a legitimate partner in the increasingly violent battle against the Taliban.
In the latest fighting, Afghan and international forces killed about half a dozen militants during a raid on compounds used by a Taliban commander in eastern Wardak province on Tuesday, the US military said in a statement.
The agreement that a runoff is required is likely just the first step in negotiations to iron out these differences between the Karzai and Abdullah camps.
The US appears to be backing a power-sharing deal, but there are a number of possible scenarios. In Afghanistan, many have also suggested holding a loya jirga, a traditional Afghan meeting where decisions are made through a combination of negotiation and consensus.
American officials have repeatedly said they’re pushing for a “legitimate government” in Afghanistan, which does not necessarily need to be elected. People familiar with the talks have said both Karzai and Abdullah have said privately that they’re open to the idea of a coalition, though with very different interpretations of what that would mean and when it could happen.
The 20 August poll was characterized by Taliban attacks on polling stations and government buildings that killed dozens of people. In some areas, militants cut off the ink-marked fingers of people who had voted.
Turnout was dampened during that vote because of threats of violence from the Taliban and many say even fewer people would come out in a runoff.
Despite the danger, some Afghans in the southern city of Kandahar, a Karzai stronghold where many votes ended up thrown out for fraud, said they would prefer a runoff to a coalition government. Karzai is widely expected to prevail in a runoff vote.
Abdur Rahman, who runs a foreign exchange bureau in Kandahar, said a runoff would be difficult, but if there is no other option, the government should organize one.
“We support a runoff, but a new coalition government would not be good for Afghanistan,” said 46-year-old Rahman, who voted for Karzai. “Karzai already has a coalition. Why would he make any deal with Abdullah or give him power?”