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In Kabul, a collective sigh of relief
With Karzai declared winner, many hope political tension is over

By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

KABUL -- Election officials declared Afghan President Hamid Karzai the winner of a new five-year term Monday, canceling Saturday's runoff election 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.

But the decision to allow Karzai to begin a new term without a clear 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 unrest.

In an unusual and potentially worrisome development Monday evening, Abdurrashid Dostum, a former ethnic militia leader and political ally of Karzai's who has a long track record of human rights abuses, arrived on an international flight at the Kabul airport. Dostum, who has been living in exile in Turkey, is a longtime rival of a northern strongman who backed Abdullah.

An official from Dostum's political party confirmed Monday night that the ethnic Uzbek commander had just arrived in Kabul. He insisted that the visit was "normal" and that Dostum had no special agenda. But Dostum is a powerful and controversial figure. His last known visit here, to support Karzai's campaign in August, lasted only a few days after U.S. officials complained.

Supporters of Dostum in northern Faryab province, reached by phone Monday night, said they expected him to visit there to rouse support in case of violence from followers of Attah Mohammed, the governor of nearby Balkh province. Mohammed, who abandoned Karzai to back Abdullah, is a former militia leader and longtime rival of Dostum's; the two camps have at times fought bloody battles. Mohammed has said he will not recognize a new Karzai government.

'Now he's elected'

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 runoff would be fair or transparent.

Lodin said the seven-member panel had been "fully prepared" to hold the runoff but had decided that it should be canceled for a combination of reasons. He noted that 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 Lodin had been biased during the election process toward Karzai, who appointed him and the other panel members. "We have answered these questions a thousand times. There is no need to discuss it further," he said through an interpreter.

Abdullah aides said the decision had come as no surprise and was another indication of the panel's favoritism toward Karzai, but they accepted the result. "I think people were fed up with this controversy over the election," said Homayoun Shah Assefy, an Abdullah running mate. "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 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 Taliban attack. 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. reaction

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, visiting Kabul on 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. But while Ban was pledging "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-Pakistani border, where extremist groups are based.

In the streets of Kabul, 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 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."

It was not clear how soon Karzai would begin his term or what changes he would make. U.S. officials and other Western allies have been urging him to crack down on corruption and improve governance, possibly with help from foreign advisers or new technocratic aides.

Staff writer William Branigin in Washington and special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.

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