Karzai expected to agree to runoff

Fraud investigators threw out hundreds of thousands of votes for President Hamid Karzai in the country's disputed August election. The findings set the stage for a runoff between him and his top challenger.
By Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Obama administration officials said they expect Afghan President Hamid Karzai to announce Tuesday that he will accept a runoff in his country's disputed election, after the invalidation of nearly a million of his votes by the commission investigating fraud in the Aug. 20 race.

The findings by the U.N.-backed International Complaints Commission, released Monday after two months of political turmoil, stripped Karzai of nearly a third of his tally. That brought him below 50 percent of the total and triggered a constitutionally mandated second round of voting between him and the runner-up, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Senior administration officials, while palpably relieved at what they said had been an apparent breakthrough in tense negotiations with Karzai, remained reluctant to state unequivocally that he had agreed to a runoff. "There are any number of cliches you could choose from," said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "but we'll wait until the chickens are hatched."

A U.N. spokeswoman said Monday that Karzai had told Secretary General Ban Ki-moon he will "fully respect" the constitutional process. But a senior U.N. official added to the uncertainty, saying that although Karzai planned to say Tuesday he would abide by the constitution -- and would complain about foreign interference in the election -- it remained unclear what resolution he would commit himself to.

Karzai's acceptance of another round of voting, after weeks of resistance, would allow the Obama administration to proceed with the high-level review of its faltering Afghanistan war strategy, a process that has been hamstrung by the delay in determining who its Afghan government partner will be. The White House has been under increasing congressional and public pressure to make a decision on whether to send tens of thousands of more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as requested by the top American commander there.

Even as the results of the fraud investigation began to leak last week, Karzai continued to insist he had won legitimately, based on a preliminary tally announced in September by a government- allied election commission. Over the past several days, he has come under intense international pressure to agree to a runoff.

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seized the opportunity to lock in publicly reports of progress, telling reporters that "we're looking to hear from President Karzai tomorrow, Kabul time."

"I am very hopeful that we will see a resolution in line with the constitutional order," she said. "But I don't want to preempt in any way President Karzai's statement, which will set the stage for how we go forward in the next stage of this. . . . He is going to announce his intentions." She added that she was "encouraged at the direction that the situation is moving."

According to an analysis by Democracy International, an independent monitor of investigation data from the U.N.-backed complaints commission, Karzai's share of the Aug. 20 vote dropped from 54.6 percent to about 48 percent. Abdullah was left with 31.5 percent of the vote. The final tally must be certified by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission.

"They're basically mandated to take the orders, implement the orders . . . then go ahead and certify the final results," Grant Kippen, the Canadian head of the complaints commission, said in an interview. "There shouldn't be really any reason to doubt."

Throughout the political storm, Karzai's office has cast doubt on the credibility of the investigation, citing foreign interference and holding out the possibility that he would use his influence with the Afghan election commission to reject the fraud findings.

Afghan officials close to Karzai have been split in recent days over whether he would accept a runoff. One said that Karzai would be amenable to a second round, but that there must be a better public explanation for why more than a million votes -- including nearly 200,000 for Abdullah -- were tossed out.

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