- By Jean MacKenzieJean MacKenzie is director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Afghanistan. She has spent the past five years in Kabul, working with Afghan journalists and writing extensively about the country.
It was not so much the announcement itself that was shocking as the manner of its presentation.
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai stood at a podium on Tuesday afternoon to announce that Afghanistan would hold a runoff election between himself and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah on Nov. 7, he was flanked by three ambassadors, one U.S. senator, and the U.N. special representative.
“It was like some sort of political love-in for Karzai,” said one international election observer, speaking privately.
At the very least, it was an overwhelming demonstration of support for a president who had for days stood “like a brick wall,” as one diplomat put it, in the way of holding a second round of elections. Several days of fevered negotiations were required before Karzai backed down and agreed to accept the legally mandated decisions of the election oversight bodies.
This earned him plaudits and kudos from a host of international actors, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who sent Karzai a letter commending him for his decision.
“[President Karzai] showed statesmanship by deciding to move forward, embracing the Constitution and the rule of law,” said U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.).
The Afghan president stopped a bit short of that lofty goal, however. In the hour that he stood on the dais, Karzai never once uttered the word “fraud,” or acknowledged in any way that he was not the outright victor in the first round of elections on Aug. 20. Preliminary results gave him nearly 55 percent of the vote, to 28 percent for Abdullah.
“I will leave it to the Afghan people … to decide whether or not I was the winner,” he said.
But it was the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) that robbed him of his coveted victory, by ordering the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to disqualify almost one-third of the votes cast for Karzai.
The IEC could barely conceal its consternation at having to order a second round.
“His Excellency Hamed Karzai has received 49.67 percent of the total valid vote and is recognized as the leading candidate,” said the press release. “Although the IEC has some reservations regarding the decisions of the ECC, considering time constraints, the imminent arrival of winter and existence of problems in the country, the IEC announces that the second round of elections will be held on Nov. 7.”
To the end, Karzai maintained that the reports of widespread ballot-box tampering were nothing more than “defamation of the Afghan elections.”
We have been told that 1.3 million votes were “suspicious” most of which — more than one million — were in the south,” he said, subtly playing the ethnic card. The south is dominated by Pashtuns, his main base of support. “We should investigate deeply why these votes have been disrespected.”
Karzai justified his willingness to accede to a second round as a selfless desire to put the interests of his country ahead of his own.
But judging from the smiling faces surrounding him on Tuesday, he got more than a warm glow from agreeing to the runoff. He got the unquestioned and open support of the international community. Ambassadors from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France joined Kerry and U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide in showing the world that this time, there would be no mistakes.
“I look forward to a dignified campaign and a fair result,” said Eide, smiling broadly at Karzai.
Eide has been under pressure for weeks, amid mounting evidence of fraud in the first round. The U.N. special representative was a champion of the “process” and staunchly defended the IEC even as the latter openly flouted its own rules and included suspicious ballot boxes in Karzai’s totals. Eide’s deputy, Peter Galbraith, was more outspoken about allegations of malfeasance, which got him sacked and led to a very public, and extremely damaging, assault on the UN’s credibility and impartiality in the election.
Now the country is braced for a second round, in just over two weeks. It will be very nearly impossible to organize a valid vote in that time, given Afghanistan’s geography, security problems and the general anger and disaffection of the population.
“The second round may well be worse than the first,” said one election expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There will be very few international observers, the security could be worse, and the turnout will probably be minuscule.”
In August, barely 30 percent of registered voters made it to the polls. In November, that number is likely to plummet.
“Why should anyone care about these elections?” grumbled one young doctor in Kabul. “It will be the international community who decides what will happen next.”
Gazing at the faces around Karzai on Tuesday afternoon, this may not be far from the truth.
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images