Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Afghanistan’s elections were never going to be perfect; this is, as we are constantly reminded, not Switzerland. But the process that began with a massively fraudulent vote on August 20 and ended with a default win on Monday, November 2, far surpassed the American president’s description of it as “messy”.
President Hamed Karzai was declared the elected president of Afghanistan at a press conference orchestrated by the Independent Election Commission.
“In order to prevent unnecessary circumstances that we have seen in the past, to save money from the huge expense (of an election) and consistent with the highest interests of the Afghan people … we declare that Hamed Karzai, who won the most votes in the first round of the elections and is the only candidate for the second round, be declared the elected president of Afghanistan,” said IEC head Azizullah Lodin.
It was an anticlimactic end to a two-month drama that had kept the entire country, and much of the world, transfixed.
Karzai’s victory, which had never been greatly in doubt, was guaranteed once his challenger in the run-off election, which was to take place on November 7, backed out on November 1.
In announcing his withdrawal, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who had emerged as Karzai’s main rival early in the election campaign, publicly castigated his opponent for his weak and corrupt governance of Afghanistan over the past eight years. He cited the massive fraud that had taken place in the first round of elections in August, and complained that almost nothing had been done to prevent a repeat performance.
“For the sake the transparency of the process in the second round of elections, and in order to regain the trust of the people, I suggested some conditions,” he said. “Unfortunately, those conditions were rejected out of hand.”
Among other things, Abdullah had demanded that the head of the IEC be sacked, accusing him of favouring Karzai and working for his victory.
Abdullah’s withdrawal threw both domestic and international observers into a tailspin. The second round of elections had been designed to try and erase, or at least lessen, the stigma of the first round, in which some 1.3 votes had to be nullified due to what the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission called “clear and convincing evidence” of fraud.
Karzai, who had claimed a first-round win with nearly 55 per cent of the vote, fiercely resisted a run-off, until he was backed into a corner by the international community, headed by US Senator John Kerry.
But once the second round was announced, Karzai became its biggest champion, telling CNN it would be “insulting democracy” not to hold it.
Abdullah, on the other hand, had pushed mightily for a second round, only to drop out once it became clear that the run-off was likely to be as flawed as the first election.
For a short time, it looked as if the elections would proceed with a sole candidate. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton told a press conference in Jerusalem that Abdullah’s withdrawal “would not affect the legitimacy” of the election, and IEC chairman Daoud Ali Najafi said that the law did not allow a candidate to withdraw.
But weighing the risks and the costs of conducting an election, the IEC made the decision to cancel.
The Taleban had threatened to disrupt the vote, and had already carried out attacks in the capital. A UN compound housing election workers was attacked on October 28, killing five UN staff and at least four guards; on the same day insurgents hit the Kabul Serena Hotel with mortar rounds. The Serena, Kabul’s only five-star hotel, also housed a number of high-level election observers.
With the announcement that a second round would not, in fact, take place, the tension in Kabul fell dramatically. Much of the international community had been locked down in anticipation of the vote; restrictions were lifted on many almost immediately. Political crisis gave way to more mundane concerns, such as the budding swine flu epidemic.
Afghans went about their normal business; many had already opted out of the election process, dismayed and disaffected by the political wrangling that had taken place.
But while Karzai gets to retain his seat for another five years, he does so under a cloud. His legitimacy will remain in question, since he never managed to gain the 50-percent-plus-one vote necessary for victory. His reputation has also taken a bad hit, with the very public airing of the fraud scandal.
Regardless of the speed with which international leaders rushed to congratulate him, Karzai will have an uphill battle to convince them that he is a credible partner who can deliver.
This could very well have a negative impact on the willingness of the international community to commit more resources to what is an increasingly unpopular war.
But for now, the election crisis has passed. For war-weary Afghans, as well as for an international community seemingly eager to get on with business, this is very good news indeed.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.
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