Will Anyone Actually Vote in Afghanistan's Much Anticipated Run-Off Election?

With a little over two weeks to go before the scheduled second round of the presidential election, many are wondering whether a fresh ballot is possible.

The challenges of organizing a new poll in such a short space of time are daunting, given the deteriorating security situation, the onset of winter and public disillusionment with the first round.

On October 20, President Hamed Karzai stepped up to the podium and announced with a forced smile that he had agreed to a run-off against his main challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

Flanked by foreign dignitaries, Karzai applauded the decision of the Independent Election Commission, IEC, to schedule a second round of voting for November 7, without ever acknowledging the massive fraud that had made a new ballot necessary.

He also never backed down from his assertion that he was the winner of the first round of the elections, saying that he had agreed to a run-off out of respect for the national interest.

"Unfortunately, our elections have been defamed," he said. "This would have brought the legitimacy of the government into question, whoever the winner was. I leave it to the Afghan people to judge whether I was the winner; I prefer the interests of Afghanistan to my own interests."

Tuesday's press conference, at which Karzai was joined by United States senator John Kerry, United Nations Special Representative Kai Eide, and the ambassadors of the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France, came after days of intense pressure on the Afghan leader.

Kerry acknowledged that there had been "lengthy and sometimes difficult deliberations" with Karzai in previous days, but he applauded the Afghan president for his leadership and statesmanlike behavior in agreeing to a run-off.

"This is a very important moment for this country and for all of us who are standing for democracy in Afghanistan," he said.

The first round of elections, held on August 20, was plagued by massive fraud and widespread insecurity. Hundreds of rockets rained down on various cities, dozens of people lost their lives, and several voters fell victim to insurgents who made good on threats to cut off ink-stained fingers indicating that a person had voted.

But Kerry and Eide promised the full support of the international community in guaranteeing security and assuring that the mistakes of the first round were not repeated.

According to preliminary results, Karzai received nearly 55 percent of the vote. But reports of fraud were so widespread that the Electoral Complaints Commission, ECC, a UN-backed body, ordered a sample audit of suspicious ballot boxes.

On October 19, the ECC issued its findings, according to which approximately 1.3 million votes were invalidated. This brought Karzai down below the 50-percent-plus-one threshold needed to avoid a run-off.

For several tense days, there were rumors from election insiders that Karzai was refusing a second round; and intense pressure was required to secure his cooperation. But the president's team still insists that he won outright on August 20.

"Karzai accepted a run-off for the good of the nation," said Moen Marastyal a member of Karzai's campaign office. "The president thought it would be good for democracy and for the legitimacy of the next government to go to a second round even if was already the winner."

The challenges of organizing a new poll within a few weeks are daunting, and it may ultimately prove impossible to carry out. Abdullah has indicated in media interviews that he is open to talks should weather, security and other problems combine to scupper a second round.

But both Karzai and Abdullah have rejected the idea of a coalition government, despite international pressure on the two men to hammer out a deal.

"A coalition has no legitimacy," said Karzai at Tuesday's press conference. "I support a government of national unity."

Kerry denied reports that he had been trying to foster such a match.

"Let me say categorically, there were no talks about a coalition," he told reporters.

Abdullah's team was in a buoyant mood following the announcement of a second round.

"We are grateful to all the national and international institutions, especially the ECC, for their decision," said Fazel Sancharaki, Abdullah's campaign spokesperson. "It was based on observation of reality."

But while the candidates say they are preparing for the elections, experts have questioned whether a second round will be possible because of the security crisis, bad weather and Afghan disillusionment.

"People have lost their trust in the election process," said political analyst Wahid Muzhda. "When [ECC Commissioner Mustafa] Barakzai resigned, saying that foreigners were dominating the process, this had a very negative effect. I think the number of voters will be much lower than in the first round."

The resignation of one of only two Afghan commissioners on the five-member panel sent shock waves through the country on October 12. Barakzai was widely seen as Karzai's man on the ECC, and many speculated that the president was setting the stage for a challenge to the ECC findings, should they deprive him of his first-round victory.

If turnout is significantly lower than in August, it could have a serious impact on any claims to legitimacy for the next government. According to official results, just 4.3 million valid votes were cast -- less than one third of an estimated 15 million potential voters.

With the onset of winter, travel in much of the north will become extremely difficult, and many voters will be unable to get to polling stations. Others maybe frightened by the deteriorating security, which, as Muzhda points out, is now affecting the north.

But the international community would insist on the run-off regardless, he maintained.

"Foreign countries are behind this process," said Muzhda. "They do not want the situation to become a crisis like in Iran, nor do they want their imported democracy to come under question."

Political analyst Ahmad Saeedi maintains that there is no other option.

"Even if rocks fall from the sky we will have to go to the polls," he said. "We do not have a legitimate president, and all the bridges behind us have been burned."

The first round of voting was so flawed that it could not be allowed to stand, he insisted.

"The fraud was so widespread that it could not be ignored," he said. "Kai Eide also needed to redeem his honor."

Eide had been at the center of a very public scandal after he sacked his deputy, Peter Galbraith. Galbraith then went to the media to accuse Eide of knowingly covering up fraud in order to protect and benefit Karzai.

"Moreover, if the election did not go to the second round, it is possible that NATO could cut off their assistance, leaving America alone here," Saeedi said.

Ultimately, the success of the second round will depend on the mood of the voters. Many Afghans say they are tired of all of the fuss, and just want to be left alone.

"I don't know what the foreigners want from us here," sighed Mohammad Yasin, a taxi driver in Kabul. "What elections? What freedom? What democracy? Whatever the foreigners want, they do. Nobody knew Karzai, they dropped him on a mountain in Uruzgan province and made him president. So now they can make somebody else president. This is a real soap opera for the foreigners. They enjoy our suffering."

But Zakia, a student at Mariam High School in Kabul, says that she would go and vote for Abdullah as many times as necessary.

"Abdullah is the candidate of the people of Afghanistan," she said. "Karzai cheated the first time. I hope that this time, Abdullah becomes the president."


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