Karzai's top rival for Afghan presidency agrees to runoff

Afghanistan's voters went to the polls on Aug. 20, 2009, for the nation's second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Two months later, Afghanistan's election commission ordered a runoff election for Nov. 7 after a fraud investigation invalidated nearly a million of President Hamid Karzai's votes.
By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Thursday, October 22, 2009

KABUL -- One day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai reluctantly agreed to a runoff election, his top rival followed suit Wednesday, paving the way for a rematch between the embattled incumbent and his polished former foreign minister.

But even as this country appeared to avert a constitutional crisis, political aides and electoral experts acknowledged that daunting obstacles remain in preparing for the Nov. 7 vote -- including the possibility of Taliban intimidation or violence and the challenge of finding sufficient numbers of poll monitors untainted by the fraud allegations in the original vote.

"Voters are taking a risk in some parts of the country, and they should be confident that risk is worthwhile," Karzai's challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, said at a news conference Wednesday, adding that he was preparing a list of "recommendations and conditions" for election organizers. "My whole desire is that the second round will take place on time, under good circumstances," he said.

U.S. officials share those sentiments, and they stressed the importance of having a strong partner in Afghanistan. Resolution of the electoral crisis, they said, will also make it easier for the Obama administration to make a decision on increasing U.S. troop levels.

"You really want to know that this has worked," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) told reporters Wednesday, after his successful effort to persuade Karzai to accept a runoff. "I would absolutely counsel the president to wait until the end of the runoff" to decide on troop levels.

Some observers still think a power-sharing arrangement would be preferable to a runoff, but both Karzai and Abdullah have rejected the idea, and Abdullah on Wednesday denied reports that he was under pressure from U.S. officials to reach such a deal. He said President Obama had called him Tuesday night and expressed appreciation for his conduct in the election.

Although Afghan and international forces have pledged to bolster protection for the runoff, many ordinary Afghans remain skeptical about security.

One group of tribal elders from the southern province of Kandahar called on Abdullah on Wednesday, telling him the Taliban would not permit voting in their district and begging him to form a joint government with Karzai. A group visiting from the northern province of Laghman said they were far more worried about violence than about who would win the rematch.

"It's a good decision to have this second round, because no election can stand on fraud, but I'm afraid security will be even worse this time," said Amal, 22, who repairs kitchen appliances.

There are also major concerns about how to prevent a reprise of the Aug. 20 vote, in which widespread fraud led to more than a million votes being thrown out by a review panel. The findings lowered Karzai's tally from just over 54 percent to just over 49 percent, which was enough to reverse his presumed first-round win.

Officials of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission said Wednesday that they plan to replace all temporarily hired election workers. About 200 election administrators accused of fraud also will be fired, officials said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said this week that it would be a "huge challenge" to protect the fast-approaching runoff from fraud. But some Afghan observers said both the embarrassment of the first-round rigging revelations and the experience gained by professionally ferreting out the abuse made it far less likely that major fraud would occur this time.

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