By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009 12:09 PM
KABUL -- Election officials declared Afghan President Hamid Karzai the winner of a new five-year term Monday, canceling a runoff election scheduled for Saturday just one day after Karzai's sole challenger quit the race. The decision ended weeks of political drift since a first presidential poll in August was found invalid because of massive fraud.
In the capital, a sense of relief was instant and palpable. Kabul residents honked horns and exchanged celebratory text messages as the news spread. American, European and U.N. officials rushed to congratulate Karzai and pledged to work closely with his new administration.
Nevertheless, the decision to install Karzai without a clear electoral mandate raised questions about the legitimacy of his future administration. And despite calls for calm by his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, there were fears that opposition supporters might cause violent disturbances.
Aides to the president called a news conference Monday evening but then immediately canceled it, while Karzai was said to be conferring privately with advisers. Several hours later, security forces rushed to the Kabul airport amid reports that Abdurrashid Dostum, a former warlord and ally of Karzai, was flying back from exile in Turkey.
The terse announcement of Karzai's victory was made by the chairman of the Afghan Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, whose removal had been demanded by Abdullah as one of several conditions for remaining in the race. After Karzai rejected the demands, Abdullah, a former foreign minister and eye doctor, withdrew Sunday, saying he did not believe the Nov. 7 runoff would be fair or transparent.
"We declare Mr. Hamid Karzai, who received a majority of votes in the first-round election and is the only candidate in the second round, as the elected president of Afghanistan," Lodin said.
He said the seven-member panel had been "fully prepared" to hold the runoff but had reached a consensus that it should be canceled for a combination of reasons. He noted there was only one candidate, that the poll would be costly and dangerous to hold, and that it could have created "many challenges to the country's security and stability."
The chairman cited several provisions in the Afghan constitution in support of the panel's decision, but he also compared the situation to a wrestling match. Peppered with questions about how the commission reached its conclusion, Lodin said, "If one wrestler refuses to wrestle, the referee raises the hand of the other and declares him the winner."
Lodin brushed off questions about Abdullah's complaints that he had been biased during the election process toward Karzai, who appointed him and the other commission members. "We have answered these questions a thousand times. There is no need to discuss it further," he said through an interpreter.
Aides to Abdullah said the announcement come came as no surprise and was another indication of the panel's favoritism toward Karzai. One aide said there might be an appeal to the Afghan Supreme Court to determine whether the election commission had the authority to cancel the runoff.
"I think people were fed up with this controversy over election," said Homayoun Shah Assefy, one of Abdullah's running mates. "I think it's a good thing that this is finished. Whether it's legal or not, we can stop discussing this matter. Now he's elected."
Despite lingering questions over the commission's impartiality, foreign officials welcomed the announcement and said it appeared to have a constitutional basis. U.S. officials here said that even if the decision were legally challenged, the Afghan high court would probably uphold it within a short time.
Within two hours of the announcement, the U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying, "We congratulate President Karzai on his victory in this historic election and look forward to working with him, his new administration, the Afghan people and our partners in the international community to support Afghanistan's progress toward institution reforms, security and prosperity."
U.S. officials said privately that Karzai would clearly have won the runoff, and they maintained that Abdullah's voluntary withdrawal made it unnecessary to hold a new poll that would have exposed voters to the risk of attack by Taliban insurgents. Even after hundreds of thousands of votes were discarded as fraudulent in the August poll, Karzai won more than 49 percent to Abdullah's 30 percent.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who happened to be visiting Kabul Monday, said he welcomed the decision to cancel the poll and congratulated Karzai. He stressed, however, that "the new president must move swiftly to form a government that is able to command the support of both the Afghan people and the international community."
Ban promised that the United Nations would continue to help Afghanistan despite the insurgent attack here that killed five foreign U.N. employees and three Afghans last week. At least nine other people were wounded in the Oct. 28 attack on a guesthouse in Kabul where U.N. election workers were staying. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, in which three of the radical Islamist movement's fighters were also killed.
But while Ban was pledging Monday to provide "every support and assistance to the new government" in Kabul, the United Nations announced that it would reduce its foreign staff in Pakistan and suspend some projects along the Afghan-Pakistan border, where violent extremist groups are based.
In the streets of the capital, many evening commuters and shoppers said they were happy and relieved that the election issue had been settled. Some said they had supported Karzai but others said they were more concerned about preventing election-related violence than about whether Karzai or Abdullah won.
"I just heard it on the radio, and I am happy we are not going for the second round," said taxi driver Baz Mohammed, 40. "Security is terrible, business is stopped, and the election would have cost a lot of money. I hope Afghanistan will stay calm now and that Mr. Karzai will be able to bring some changes in our lives."
It was not clear how soon Karzai would take office or what changes he would make at the beginning of his new term. U.S. officials and other Western allies have been strongly urging him to crack down on corruption and take steps to improve governance, possibly with help from a team of foreign advisers or new, high-level technocratic aides.
Karzai, 51, has led Afghanistan since early 2002, when he was installed under a U.N. agreement after the collapse of Taliban rule. He was elected president in 2004 during a surge of economic and political progress, but since then the country has spiraled downward. The revived Taliban insurgency has become an aggressive and stubborn foe of Afghan and NATO forces, and Afghan civilians have grown disillusioned with official corruption and incompetence.
Many voters, however, said they preferred Karzai as a well-known and established leader, seeing him as a unifying figure who stood a better chance than Abdullah of keeping peace in this ethnically divided and war-scarred nation of 25 million.
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.