/ 27 October 2009

What the run-off could mean for Afghanistan

Afghans vote on November 7 for a second time in their disputed presidential election, hoping to end weeks of political limbo and uncertainty.

President Hamid Karzai — who agreed to the run-off after diplomatic pressure following a United Nations-backed fraud investigation into the first round, which tossed out hundreds of thousands of his votes — faces former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Given the first round fraud allegations, the run-off’s legitimacy and fairness will be important to Washington’s policy on Afghanistan, including a decision by United States President Barack Obama on whether to send more troops.

Here are some possible scenarios for the outcome:

Karzai wins second round
Analysts and even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said Karzai is likely to win, because as a Pashtun — Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group — he has grassroots support in the south and east. Many Afghans see Karzai as experienced and believe he is best placed to achieve a degree of stability.

The UN fraud probe brought Karzai’s votes in the first round down to less than the 50% needed for an outright win, but well ahead of Abdullah.

If Karzai does win the run-off his legitimacy could still be tainted by the earlier fraud allegations. He may feel obliged to offer Abdullah a strong position in the government in order to appease his rival’s supporters and outside critics.

He may also have to reshuffle his Cabinet dramatically to satisfy Western backers who want more effort in fighting graft.

Karzai’s ties with Washington have been strained for the past year because of US frustration over his lack of effectiveness in dealing with corruption and his criticism of US troops for causing civilian casualties. Karzai’s agreement to a second round has soothed some of that tension.

Abdullah wins second round
A former foreign minister once sacked by Karzai, Abdullah did better than many expected in the August 20 poll, although few expect him to win the run-off.

Half Tajik and half Pashtun, Abdullah might seem a unifying candidate who can cross divisive ethnic lines. But his closeness to assassinated Tajik anti-Taliban general Ahmad Shah Masood disillusions Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, whose support is seen by analysts as crucial for a stable and legitimate Afghan state.

An Abdullah victory could in fact increase ethnic tension. His Cabinet would likely be dominated by Tajiks with strong links to the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, but given he has campaigned on an anti-fraud ticket, his efforts to fight corruption could placate concerns about his ethnic divisiveness.

Second round is a disaster
Because fraud allegations cast such a shadow over the first round, a primary concern ahead of the run-off is making it fair and transparent.

Election officials say they are taking measures to reduce the chances of vote rigging by sacking or replacing more than 200 election staff across the country.

But given the short time the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the UN have, there is a question whether the second round will be legitimate or a shambles as officials scramble to set up tens of thousands of polling stations in unforgiving and in some areas insurgent-riddled terrain.

In addition, concerns about winter, which has started in most of the country and with parts of the north already under snow, means thousands fewer people will be able to access ballot boxes.

If a second round does not even happen because of these reasons, the international community, Karzai, Abdullah and Afghan officials may have to consider an interim arrangement.

Abdullah pulls out
Although Abdullah has maintained he will stand and Western diplomats have said he is unlikely to pull out, speculation persists in Kabul that he may withdraw.

Abdullah issued an ultimatum on Monday demanding Karzai sack Afghanistan’s top election official and suspend three ministers, fanning speculation of a boycott if his demands are not met.

Karzai has already said he would not immediately declare himself president in such a scenario and would instead wait for a legal ruling on how to continue the election process.

If Abdullah does withdraw, it may be part of a deal with Karzai in return for a top government position. Karzai has said he wants to work with Abdullah, whatever the election outcome.

Karzai wins by too many votes, or too few
If Karzai wins with far more than half of the vote, there will likely be a repeat of the fraud allegations that dogged the first round. Abdullah will cry foul and ask for a UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission investigation and repeat charges the IEC is partial to Karzai.

Washington, while wanting to limit Afghan perceptions it is meddling, will also be unhappy with a landslide to Karzai because of its implications of fraud and unfairness.

If Karzai wins by a very narrow margin it might be seen as a sign the second round was fair, but might also trigger demands from Abdullah supporters and the West for a power sharing deal.

If a coalition is agreed, Abdullah is likely to push for a parliamentary system, which he has mooted before. He may want to establish a prime ministerial role for himself and persuade Karzai to take on a more symbolic presidential job.

Karzai is unlikely to agree but may prefer to give Abdullah and his supporters half of the ministries in the government and make Abdullah his vice-president. — Reuters