Afghan president's leading rival agrees to runoff
Nov. 7 vote still faces obstacles, including possibility of violence

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.

"Everyone has learned lessons from this," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, president of the private Free and Fair Elections Foundation, which monitored the first round. "The fact that the fraud dispute was settled not by guns but by political institutions should send a strong message of encouragement to voters to go back out again."

Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Karzai's campaign, said he and his staff had been instructed to "make a concerted effort to get people to the polling stations." He said that although Karzai personally disagreed that a runoff was needed, he had eventually embraced the idea "for the benefit of the country" and was now eager to see it carried out successfully.

In logistical terms, officials said, they are already well prepared for a runoff. They said that new ballots have been printed and that they are simpler than those in the first round, which included more than 40 candidates. Polling kits have been delivered to voting stations, they said, and transportation is being arranged to staff less accessible polls.

On another level, the reduction of the diverse field of candidates to two men publicly identified with rival ethnic groups has led many Afghans to fear that a runoff may exacerbate ethnic divisions and even lead to violence. Karzai hails from a southern ethnic Pashtun tribe; Abdullah is half-Pashtun and half-Tajik, but his strong support base is among Tajiks and other ethnic minorities in the north.

Both Karzai and Abdullah have taken pains to reach across ethnic lines and portray themselves as unifiers. "It is extremely important to avoid divisive politics based on ethnicity," Abdullah said Wednesday. "We don't need to play to such sentiments."

Omer, the spokesman for Karzai's campaign, used almost identical terms in an interview Wednesday.

He said it was "extremely important that we not divide the country as the result of a second round. The president does not identify his stronghold as being Pashtun or southern."

"We believe he won a majority in seven of the eight voting regions across the country," Omer added, "and we believe that will happen again this time."

Staff writer Michael D. Shear in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company