x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Without opposition Karzai gets five more years

After the Afghan president's only challenger dropped out of the run-off election, Hamid Karzai's re-election became a foregone conclusion. Now Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission has made it official, the government's western backers have been quick to hail it 'legitimate'. Whether Mr Karzai can win the support of his own electorate after having engaged in massive fraud remains to be seen.

After the Afghan president's only challenger dropped out of the run-off election, Hamid Karzai's re-election became a foregone conclusion. Now Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission has made it official, the government's Western backers have been quick to hail it 'legitimate'. "British and American officials rushed to congratulate Mr Karzai as the country's 'legitimate leader' as the international community tried to draw a line under months of paralysing political limbo following the August 20 vote which was mired in fraud," The Daily Telegraph reported. "But London and Washington also made clear that they expect him to make immediate moves towards bolstering the ranks of the armed forces, tackling corruption and giving the defeated opposition a role within his new government. "The White House said there would be 'hard conversations' ahead during the early weeks of Mr Karzai's second term, while Gordon Brown called on Mr Karzai to set out a 'unifying' programme for Afghanistan." Time magazine noted: "Even as it pressed for a run-off, the US seemed to recognise its irrelevance. By many accounts, its insistence on a second vote was intended as leverage to press Karzai into accepting a unity government with Abdullah rather than to actually go through with the poll. But Karzai called Washington's bluff, insisting on a second round he was confident of winning. Meanwhile, Abdullah, claiming that he'd be cheated again and probably recognising that he was never likely to win even a clean election against Karzai, made clear his intention to boycott the runoff early on. The runoff was unlikely to help stabilise the country or resolve its fundamental conflicts, and canceling it simply denied the Taliban another opportunity to demonstrate its strength by ensuring an even lower turnout." In The Independent, Patrick Cockburn said: "For the US President, Barack Obama, the election has no silver lining. It has left him poised to send tens of thousands more US troops to fight a war in defence of one of the world's most crooked, corrupt and discredited governments. 'It is not that the Taliban is so strong, but the government is so weak,' was a common saying among Afghans before the election. This will be even truer in future. "The US and its allies may now push for a national unity government between Mr Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, his main rival for the presidency. This might look good on paper, or at least better than the alternative of Mr Karzai ruling alone. But enforced unity between men who detest each other will institutionalise divisions. Its value will largely be in terms of propaganda for external consumption." In The Guardian, Peter Galbraith, the former United Nations' deputy special representative for Afghanistan, said that the fraud-tainted elections have halted the momentum for Mr Obama's new Afghanistan strategy and undercut domestic support for sending more troops. "Much of the fraud was blatant. In many polling centres Karzai won 100 per cent of the votes and results were recorded in improbably even numbers, such as 500 to zero. This made it relatively easy for the Electoral Complaints Commission, a UN-backed watchdog set up under Afghan law, to detect and toss out many fraudulent ballots. In the end, it excluded enough phoney votes to reduce Karzai's total to 49.67 per cent, setting up the run-off. Because it only needed to determine if a run-off was required, the ECC did not do a full recount but instead audited a representative sample of votes. "If the ECC had done a full recount, Karzai's total would have been substantially lower. Insiders tell me that an honest result would have had Karzai at 41 per cent and Abdullah at 34 per cent. While Karzai was still the favourite in the second round, Abdullah clearly had a chance to overtake him, especially if he could capitalise on public disgust with the fraud. Karzai, however, took no chances. Abdullah and the UN asked the IEC to reduce the number of polling places by eliminating the ghost polling centres and to replace staff who committed fraud. Instead, the IEC - whose members Karzai appointed and who serve his interests - increased the number of centres and rehired corrupt staff. Not only was fraud more likely in the second round than the first, it also would have been harder to detect as the perpetrators presumably would have learned to be more subtle. Knowing the Taliban were determined to use violence to disrupt the vote, Abdullah did the statesmanlike thing. He withdrew rather than ask Afghans to risk their lives voting in a phoney election. "This outcome is a huge failure for the international community, and in particular the UN, which mobilised $300m million to pay for the elections and was supposed to help produce a fair outcome. UN professionals managed all aspects of the election process, from public education to the printing of ballots, while the UN-backed ECC handled hundreds of major complaints and audited more than 1,000 ballot boxes. Kai Eide, the Norwegian diplomat who heads the UN mission, claimed the audit process proved that the Afghan institutions worked, since the ECC took away Karzai's first-round victory. But the system did not work. The IEC deliberately adopted procedures that made an honest second round impossible." In The New Yorker, Steve Coll observed: "Many lesser politicians would have handled themselves less responsibly than Abdullah in such circumstances. He has ample reason to resent Karzai; he was forced from Karzai's cabinet a few years back in less than happy circumstances, only to have Karzai or his team try to steal the presidential election - unnecessarily, and thuggishly. No doubt this personal history had some influence on Abdullah's decision to foil the satisfaction of an outright Karzai election victory by employing complaints about fraud to withdraw from participation. But a better explanation lies in an analysis of Abdullah's interests and current negotiating position. He has long sought constitutional reforms to strengthen parliament over the presidency. He is almost certainly interested in rejoining the government, with some of his allies, if the deal is attractive enough. He retains ambitions and wishes to remain a viable national figure in a post-Karzai Afghanistan. He will be in a stronger position to negotiate toward all of these goals by adopting the posture he announced yesterday than he would have been if he had participated in the runoff and been defeated. Rather than a confirmed election loser, Abdullah now presents himself to the international community and the Karzai government as a problem to be solved - a responsible, reasonable problem, open to constructive negotiations that will address his interests and concerns."

pwoodward@thenational.ae