Karzai Agrees to Run-Off Second Afghan Vote Poses Risks for West

The US government had been increasing the pressure by the day. On Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave in and announced he would submit to a run-off election against challenger Abdullah Abdullah. Renewed election fraud could mean a loss of face for the US -- and compromise the West as guarantors of democracy.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has succumbed to international pressure and announced that he will submit to a run-off.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has succumbed to international pressure and announced that he will submit to a run-off.

By and

The waiting for the official election results in Afghanistan has come to an end. On Tuesday, the Election Commission in Afghanistan decided against President Hamid Karzai -- thus joining the United Nations-supported Electoral Complaints Commission, which had found that around one-third of the votes cast in the country's August presidential elections were invalid. Karzai will now face a run-off election against his challenger Abdullah Abdullah on Nov. 7.

Karzai conceded defeat and said that he accepted the decision of the Election Commission, reversing weeks of refusal to submit to a run-off despite numerous indications of election fraud. The initial results had Karzai winning an absolute majority of 54 percent against 28 percent for Abdullah, who spent years as Afghanistan's foreign minister. Now, though, it has become clear that Karzai's share of the vote was below 50 percent.

The allegations of fraud and the seemingly endless waiting for the final results have paralyzed the war-ravaged country in recent weeks. The US sent Senator John Kerry, chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, to Kabul in an effort to reach a rapid solution. Kerry has met with Karzai five times since Saturday to convince him that a run-off was necessary. Former US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who enjoys great respect in the region, was also in Kabul to push the US position.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also made the trip and numerous heads of state and government telephoned Karzai and urged him to back down. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upped the pressure earlier Tuesday by saying "I am very hopeful that we will see a resolution in line with the constitutional order in the next several days."

An Important Step Towards Democracy

Following Karzai's announcement that he would submit to a run-off, US President Barack Obama expressed gratification. "This is an important step forward in ensuring a credible process for the Afghan people which results in a government that reflects their will," Obama said in a statement. "It is now vital that all elements of Afghan society continue to come together to advance democracy, peace and justice."

Getting Karzai to budge required a whirlwind of diplomatic activity. In his announcement accepting the run-off, he said: "We believe the decision of the Independent Election Commission is legitimate, legal and constitutional and it strengthens the path towards democracy."

With their hectic push, negotiators succeeded in preventing a second disgrace. The West's reputation, already heavily burdened by the eight-year-old war and the occasionally overbearing behavior of NATO troops, had been threatened with further damage. The presidential election, which had been propagated by the West as a step toward a better future for Afghanistan, had become a farce as a result of election fraud.

The Taliban's Greatest Victory in Eight Years

"The elections were intended to be a milestone in the country's path towards democracy and stability," Peter Galbraith, the former deputy United Nations envoy who was fired in his dispute over the manipulated election, wrote in this week's SPIEGEL. "Instead, they have destroyed President Karzai's credibility at home and abroad -- and they have undermined the Afghans' trust in democracy. This election has assured the Taliban of its greatest strategic victory in eight years of war."

The fact that Karzai is now agreeing to a run-off vote allows the West, and especially the United States, to save face for the time being. But the threat of that happening will persist if the power hungry president again tries to stand in the away of a truly democratic solution. That would leave egg on the face of the international community, which elevated him into office during the December 2001 Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, Germany. If, for example, ballots are tampered with or other irregularities surface during a run-off between Karzai and Abdullah, the West would be totally compromised as guarantors of democracy.

But even if he is reelected by democratically acceptable means, the question still remains: Can a government under a man like Karzai, who has been considered a puppet of the West since his installation in the office in Bonn and now has the taint of election fraud ever be credible?

American diplomats are well aware of the dilemma: They have no choice but to put up with Karzai -- once the great hope of the US -- even though he's become part of the problem. The priority now is to find a short-term solution, said one high-ranking US representative. Karzai's obstinacy is making it impossible for Washington to forge a new strategy for Afghanistan, and the decision on US troop reinforcements is on hold until there is no doubt left about the future government of Afghanistan. "It can be Karzai for the time being," the official said. But in the medium-term, Afghanistan needs a new leader -- and there's a severe shortage of suitable candidates.


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