Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s chief political rival agreed on Wednesday to take part in the November 7 runoff election, setting the stage for a high-stakes showdown in the face of Taliban threats and approaching winter snows.
The former Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, made his comment to reporters one day after Mr. Karzai bowed to intense U.S. and international pressure and accepted findings of a U.N.-backed panel that there had been massive fraud on his behalf in the August 20 vote. Those findings showed Mr. Karzai failed to win the 50 per cent required to avoid a runoff.
As part of efforts to avert cheating in the upcoming ballot, election officials have fired 200 district election chiefs following complaints by candidates or observers about misconduct in their regions, the U.N. said last week. It was not immediately known how many posts in total there were.
Holding the second round of polling as Afghanistan enters its winter season poses serious challenges, both for drawing voters and distributing ballots nationwide, which the U.N. said would begin on Thursday. Mr. Abdullah said U.S. and Afghan forces also must provide security to prevent a repeat of a wave of Taliban attacks in August that killed dozens. In some areas, militants cut off the ink-marked fingers of people who had voted.
Voters “are taking a risk in some parts of the country and they should be confident that that risk is worthwhile,” said Mr. Abdullah, who said he called Mr. Karzai to thank him for agreeing to hold the second-round. “I would like to see that our people are participating without an environment and atmosphere of fear and intimidation.”
Mr. Abdullah’s declaration sets the stage for an election that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said would be a “huge challenge” to pull off without repeating the widespread fraud that marred the first-round balloting. The world body has set aside more than $20 million to support the poll, according to the U.N. spokesman in Kabul, Aleem Siddique.
Finding replacements for election workers implicated in fraud will be difficult. The government had to scramble this summer to recruit enough election officials and poll workers, especially at voting stations for women. It is unclear if they would be able to fill open posts with better-qualified people.
The Independent Election Commission, the Afghan body that runs elections, must also finalise the list of polling stations. Much of the fraud in the August balloting came through ballots that arrived from so-called “ghost polling stations” that never opened because they were in dangerous areas.
But closing the questionable stations would prevent voters in those areas from casting ballots. Kai Eide, the U.N. chief in Afghanistan, has said he worked to open the stations to avoid disenfranchising voters.
Mr. Abdullah said on Wednesday that he was preparing a list of conditions that his team wanted election organisers to commit to in order to have a fair vote. He said he would be open to negotiating the conditions, but would not accept an election organised on the same terms as the August vote.