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Runoff not a panacea

October 22, 2009 11:07 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 06:44 am IST

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has agreed to a second round of voting in the presidential election, and has therefore accepted that he did not win outright in the first poll, which took place on August 20. The runoff -- between Mr. Karzai and the runner-up Abdullah Abdullah -- will he held on November 7. The extent of fraud in the first poll was enormous. The U.N. Election Complaints Commission (ECC) found that, in its sample of 92 polling stations, all the votes went to one candidate in 30 stations; at one booth, all 600 votes went to one candidate but were awarded to another; some boxes contained ballot papers all signed in one hand and with the same pen, with all the votes going to one single candidate. In socially-conservative southern Afghanistan, men had registered long lists of women, saying the women could not register in person. Even the ink mark on voters’ fingers was easily removed with a toilet cleaner. The Independent Election Commission (IEC), packed with Karzai supporters, delayed preparing a new electoral roll until it was too late. The ECC has concluded that one-third of Mr. Karzai’s votes were fraudulent.

The ECC head Kai Eide, western diplomats in Kabul, and the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, did pressure Mr. Karzai to accept a runoff, but although they welcomed his decision they have said nothing about the previous fraud. The runoff, however, will face problems in addition to those posed by the deepening winter. To start with, voters with strong tribal loyalties, offended by the annulling of their votes, may well stay away en masse. Secondly, the ECC has been damaged by the U.N. sacking, during the campaign, of its deputy head Peter Galbraith, who had predicted serious fraud in 1,500 polling stations. A further problem is the NATO countries’ complicity by omission. To make the election look an Afghan affair, they let the IEC run it; now Afghan law also requires the ECC to drop the majority of its international observers. But any problems over the credibility of the runoff will undermine the legitimacy of the winner, and may boost the support for the Taliban as well as for tribal warlords. It appears that lessons from the elections rigged by the U.S. in Vietnam have not been learnt. Above all, the fraud perpetrated on August 20 was a betrayal of millions of Afghan voters who turned out to vote, often defying threats from the Taliban and other groups. The runoff is legally necessary, but it is far from clear what problems it will solve.

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