Election Season Ends: The Politics and Drama Surrounding Afghanistan's Runoff Poll

By Mehlaqa Samdani and Hardin Lang

Why did lead contender Abdullah Abdullah quit the runoff?

When President Hamid Karzai failed to meet the "minimum conditions" put forth by rival candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah to ensure a clean and fair second round, the latter pulled out of the presidential runoff, six days before it was scheduled. One of these conditions was the sacking of the Independent Election Commission chief, Azizullah Ludin, which Karzai refused. Certain that the runoff would see a repeat of the earlier fraud, Abdullah began talks with Karzai on a power-sharing deal whereby they would divide up the appointment of ministers and governors. However, it is reported that Karzai, confident about his prospects in the runoff, was less than yielding and the talks, facilitated by UN chief Kai Eide and U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry, collapsed, leading to Abdullah's withdrawal of his candidacy from the presidential runoff.

The failure of the power-sharing talks was a reflection of Karzai's strong bargaining position vis-à-vis international officials and Abdullah Abdullah. Karzai is aware that as long as he maintains ties with non-Pashtun former mujahideen leaders such as Fahim (Tajik) and Dostum (Uzbek), he does not need to rely on Abdullah's support or necessarily have him in his cabinet to maintain a baseline of Tajik support.

Why was the runoff cancelled?

Immediately following Abdullah's withdrawal from the runoff, Afghan election officials insisted that the runoff would still take place, as it was based on Afghanistan's electoral law and also a constitutional requirement. Karzai had also hoped to participate in the runoff to reaffirm himself as the leader of Afghanistan especially as he had been forced to acknowledge the earlier fraud.

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Following Abdullah's withdrawal, Western governments, on the other hand, had not been keen to risk the lives of their troops for a second round where the outcome had already been determined. They continued to push for a power-sharing deal between Karzai and Abdullah and the cancellation of the runoff.

On Monday, the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the Afghan electoral entity established to conduct the election, decided to cancel the presidential runoff and declared Karzai the winner, citing security concerns. There were reports that Western officials had urged "Karzai and the IEC to seek a ruling from the Supreme Court-without which Dr. Abdullah and other opponents could still dispute Mr. Karzai's mandate."

Still, the cancellation of the runoff was met with considerable relief by organizers of the election amidst heightened security concerns. While UN chief Kai Eide had stressed that the recent deadly attack on the United Nations would not deter their efforts, the international body's ability to provide a significant support role in preparation for the runoff had been severely hampered.

There were also fears that if the runoff took place and the turnout were too low for it to be deemed a fair election, it would be a major propaganda victory for the Taliban. Any misconduct in the election would have further undermined the faith of the Afghan people in democracy and increased their distrust of the coalition forces in the country. Both these conditions would aid the Taliban's capacity to recruit and prolong the war.

What are the implications for U.S. efforts in the region?

In March, President Obama announced his AfPak strategy, which was subject to review following the presidential election in Afghanistan. A prerequisite of success was the existence of a credible partner to work with in Afghanistan. Allegations of widespread irregularities in the August 20 election and the subsequent decision by the Electoral Complaints Commission to invalidate over 1.3 million ballots undercut the legitimacy of the election process. As Obama deliberates on sending more troops to the region, it is essential that the next government in Kabul be perceived as credible and legitimate by the Afghan people.

Now that the runoff has been cancelled, the United States will focus its efforts on bolstering the credibility of the Karzai administration, pushing for anticorruption measures, and urging the formation of an inclusive cabinet. There will also be efforts to restore ties with Karzai, which had suffered considerably during the election season.

Ultimately, however, Karzai's credibility depends not on Western support, but on his own efforts to reach out to his constituents and deliver basic services to the population. His main challenge will be to connect with the Pashtuns in the south, who mostly see government institutions as dominated by non-Pashtuns. This will have to change for them to feel they have a stake in Afghanistan's future. It also remains to be seen how effectively he is able to peel away moderate Taliban from the more hard-core insurgents. In the short term, Karzai will also have to deal with trouble erupting in the four Tajik provinces where Abdullah had won an outright majority.

 

Mehlaqa Samdani is a consultant and Hardin Lang a senior fellow with the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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