Updated Nov. 2, 7 a.m. E.T.
If the Obama Administration had hoped that pressuring President Hamid Karzai into accepting a runoff election would strengthen the legitimacy of the resulting Afghan government, those hopes have now been dashed. Karzai has been declared the elected President of Afghanistan by election-poll officials, after they scrapped the planned second round of the vote. Independent Election Commission chairman Azizullah Lodin announced that Karzai was the victor during a news conference in Kabul on Monday. "We declare Hamid Karzai, which got the majority of votes in the first round and is the only candidate for the second round of the election in Afghanistan in 2009 ... is the elected President of Afghanistan," said Lodin. He went on to explain that the second round on Nov. 7 had been canceled to save money, for security reasons and to prevent further delays which could damage Afghanistan both politically and economically.
The IEC's announcement comes a day after Karzai's sole challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out of the race. On Sunday, standing beneath a billboard-size poster of his face and the slogan: "No government without an election can be standable and lawful," Abdullah announced his withdrawal from the runoff, rendering it meaningless and leaving a further question mark over the legitimacy of Karzai's government.
It had taken nearly two months and countless accusations of fraud for Afghans to finally hear the results of the Aug. 20 presidential election. Although initially credited with 54% of the vote, Karzai's tally after more than 1 million fraudulent ballots were tossed out was only 49%, and the absence of a simple majority forced a runoff against his nearest rival, Abdullah. Karzai had accepted a runoff only after significant arm-twisting by the U.S., but Abdullah made his own participation conditional on electoral changes, including the sacking of the chief of the IEC, appointed by the President and seen as biased in his favor. Karzai declined, prompting Abdullah to withdraw.
"I want to be an example for future elections," a teary-eyed Abdullah told a crowd of hundreds of pennant-waving supporters. "I want to respect the people who lost their lives while voting in the first round. I want it to be known that no one should tamper with the vote of the people, or use their power to have their way."
Most Afghans acknowledge that Abdullah had little chance of winning, not only because of the continued potential for massive fraud in Karzai's favor, but because even had the election been scrupulously fair, Abdullah simply doesn't have the political support to beat the incumbent. That left his supporters saying withdrawal was his only honorable choice. "The provincial governors will influence the election, and the election commission will support Karzai regardless," says 19-year-old student Jawar Shah. "So if Karzai didn't accept Abdullah's suggestions for a cleaner election, it is better that he step down."
Abdullah himself is unlikely to have been under the illusion that he would actually win. "I think he was using his candidacy as leverage with the new Karzai administration to gain something a couple of governorships and a number of ministries for him and his friends," says John Dempsey, the Kabul-based rule of law adviser for the United States Institute of Peace. "I kind of feel like Abdullah was the dog that finally caught the car, and is now wondering, now what?"
By standing down, Abdullah also freed Afghans and the international community of the obligation to stage a runoff vote that would have been a security nightmare and would potentially have left the country in political limbo for many more weeks through the counting of ballots and the processing of inevitable fraud complaints.
Even before the runoff vote was canceled Monday, some election officials had already said it should be scrapped, given the cost and security risks involved. Yet others say that the government's legitimacy depends on the process being completed, even if it appears to be an exercise in futility. No longer will Karzai be able to point to a large turnout to affirm his legitimacy. His mandate, as much as it could be called one, has been reduced to the estimated 1.5-2 million voters that chose him in the first round, once the fraudulent ballots were disregarded. The small mandate may matter little in Afghanistan, where most people are simply relieved that the long wait is over. But it may make more problems for the Obama Administration as it deliberates a new policy for the country and how many new troops to invest. It will be harder to make the case to Congress and the American public that Karzai, winning on a technicality, is a partner the U.S. really wants in the region.
"Now that Dr. Abdullah has withdrawn, it is no longer an election but a referendum," says Sanjar Soheil, editor of the national newspaper Eight o'Clock in the Morning. And canceling the vote and dropping investigation into the first-round ballot fraud potentially sets a bad precedent that could actually encourage fraud in future elections. "The government has the responsibility to defend democracy by capturing and prosecuting those who committed fraud," says Soheil. "I fear that now this government may not."
Whether Abdullah had originally intended to become a campaigner for rule of law in Afghanistan or was simply leveraging ballot fraud by Karzai supporters for a greater stake in government for himself, the opposition candidate has become a symbol of the country's demand for fair elections and good governance. In announcing his withdrawal, he was scathing about Karzai's record as President. "The people of Afghanistan deserve better than this," he said. "We cannot say that the best has been done for the country." Still, he was careful to urge his supporters to refrain from violence. He did not ask anyone to boycott the runoff. For now, he'll have to content himself with the victory of having forced Karzai to acknowledge widespread fraud in the August vote. But he may be hoping that if he continues with his campaign for electoral transparency, he may yet figure out what to do with the car he caught.