By Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 16, 2009
An investigation of allegedly fraudulent ballots in Afghanistan's troubled election has reduced President Hamid Karzai's portion of the vote to about 47 percent, an outcome that will trigger a runoff between him and his closest competitor, according to officials familiar with results.
The tally by the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which one official called "stunning," is due to be finalized Friday. Preliminary results by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission had given Karzai 54.6 percent of the Aug. 20 vote.
The findings have major implications for the Obama administration's ongoing deliberations over Afghanistan war strategy and could eventually help remove the cloud of illegitimacy hanging over its partner government there. But a new election could also make a difficult situation worse, particularly if fraud is once again alleged or if the vote has to be delayed because of the onset of winter.
Karzai's ambassador in Washington, Said Tayeb Jawad, said Thursday that a second round of voting was "likely," although Karzai himself has never said he would accept the results of the complaints panel, which must be certified by Afghanistan's election commission.
Jawad, who spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said it would be "impossible" to hold a runoff within two weeks of certification, as required by the Afghan constitution. But "to delay until spring is a recipe for disaster," he said, adding that a new vote would have to be held within a month to avoid prolonging the uncertainty.
The United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan agreed last month that if there was to be a runoff, it would have to be held by the first week in November to avoid a turnout that would almost certainly be low because of the harsh winter.
Ballots listing both Karzai and his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, and printed in London in anticipation of a runoff, have arrived at the U.N. mission in Kabul, a U.S. official in Afghanistan said, while indelible ink is on hand and polling station kits are expected to be packed for distribution this week.
The "preliminary" results announced by the Afghan election commission last month gave Abdullah, a former foreign minister, 28 percent of the vote. The Afghan constitution mandates a runoff if no candidate is awarded more than half of the ballots.
Officials interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because the situation was developing rapidly; some also refused to be identified by government.
"The big challenge is security," the U.S. official said of new elections. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, has told U.N. and Obama administration officials that his forces have begun preparations for providing protection during the vote.
For the Obama administration, much of the delay in determining a way forward in the faltering war has been tied to the uncertain outcome of the Afghan election.
President Obama has held five closed-door meetings with his top national security advisers this month to consider McChrystal's recommendation that tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops be deployed to Afghanistan next year, but White House officials have said a decision is still weeks away.
"We've got to figure out a way to give legitimacy to whoever wins," an official said. A second round, "if clean, and if done properly, basically washes away the sins of the first," he said.
But officials agreed that a new vote would also be fraught with peril. It "definitely cuts both ways," said J. Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace, who hosted Jawad at the think tank Thursday. "On the one hand, holding the runoff could clear away some of the problems and allegations of the first round that have tainted the process and rightly made the administration, if this is truly a work of partnership, want to hold off until they knew who the government was going to be."
"But at the same time," Thier said, "there is obviously no guarantee" that a legitimate election could be organized in a few weeks or could avoid another cascade of allegations of abuse.
"There are costs to it, no question," he added, including the possibility that the Obama administration "would have to go ahead with a [strategy] decision without knowing" who the winner is.
Karzai remained a wild card as officials in Washington, Europe and Kabul awaited an official announcement of the results. Although saying he was willing to let the recount run its course -- despite the preliminary victory awarded him by the Afghan election commission -- the president has long threatened to denounce the complaints panel as illegitimate.
Karzai has complained about Western interference in the investigation process, while Abdullah on Thursday expressed faith in it. An Afghan member on the five-person complaints panel quit this week, citing foreign meddling. The move prompted further speculation that Karzai was unhappy with the investigation.
Although Thursday's comments by Jawad, considered close to Karzai, were taken as an optimistic sign, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said in an interview that a runoff would cause problems for the country.
"How can the second round be desirable for Afghanistan?" he said. "The international community loses security forces, we lose our security forces, we have to spend a significant volume of money. The security situation will be worse."
Ramazan Bashardost, a presidential candidate who finished third in the voting, said a runoff should not be considered until all the allegations of fraud are investigated. He has filed a complaint about the campaign finances of both Karzai and Abdullah and criticized the fact that the commission is, in the interest of time, investigating only a sample of allegedly fraudulent ballots.
Partlow reported from Kabul.