Karzai in focus as calls rise for Afghan run-off


A U.N.-backed watchdog invalidated thousands of votes for President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan’s August election, prompting observers to call for a run-off and the United States to say it expected Karzai to announce his intentions on Tuesday.

The August 20 vote, marred by allegations of widespread fraud, has fanned tension between Karzai and Western governments whose troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

The allegations of fraud have complicated U.S. President Barack Obama’s deliberations on whether to send thousands more U.S. troops to try to turn the tide in the eight-year war. In Brussels, NATO said more clarity was needed before the alliance decides on any substantial increase in troops.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she expected word from Karzai on Tuesday and said she was encouraged by the way things were headed, which analysts took as a hint that Karzai may either accept a run-off or work out a political deal with his main election rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

“He is going to announce his intentions. I am going to let him do that but I am encouraged at the direction that the situation is moving,” Clinton told reporters in Washington.

“I am very hopeful that we will see a resolution in line with the constitutional order in the next several days.”

Abdullah, a former Afghan foreign minister, said he was ready to go to a second round and would discuss with Karzai what to do if a run-off proved impossible due to poor weather and bad security.

Analysts and Western observers have long said Karzai would likely win a second round. Karzai is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group and its traditional rulers.

The Obama administration said the world wanted Afghan leaders to show the electoral process was legitimate and it was obvious that allegations of fraud had to be investigated.

“None of this is going to work without credible partners,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

The U.S. group Democracy International said the Electoral Complaints Commission’s report showed the number of votes invalidated by the U.N.-backed group pushed Karzai’s total below the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.

BRACING FOR A SECOND ROUND

Democracy International and the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace both said the ECC’s audit showed Karzai had about 48.3 percent, with Abdullah’s total rising to about 31 percent from 28 percent.

“Democracy International … believes the ECC audit decisions should result in a run-off election, according to Afghanistan’s electoral law,” it said in a statement.

Provisional results had given Karzai 54.6 percent.

J. Alexander Thier, Afghanistan and Pakistan director for the U.S. Institute of Peace, said ECC data showed the group threw out votes from 210 of some 350 polling stations sampled.

“Everything we are hearing is pointing at the second round. That is what we are bracing for,” a Western diplomat in Kabul said.

Under Afghan law, the Afghan government-appointed Independent Election Commission must accept the findings, recalculate the tallies and then announce final results.

Abdullah said he was “fully prepared to go to the second round.”

“There are security problems, the issue of winter. If that is the case I am open to discuss it and find the solution. We will just open the door and then find out the issues that we need to discuss,” he told Reuters.

“But if the situation comes where it’s not possible before the winter, we need to discuss it,” Abdullah said. “What are the things that we can do to bring legitimacy?”

The picture could be thrown into further disarray if the commission rejects the ECC finding, which a member of Karzai’s camp has already disputed.

“The main question right now is what the IEC is going to do now, whether they are going to accept it,” the diplomat in Kabul said.

The ECC said further action was up to Afghanistan’s election commission. The IEC could not be reached for comment on the report.

There are fears of ethnic violence if it is perceived that Karzai’s camp was behind widespread fraud. And with violence at its worst since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, analysts say continuing political uncertainty and infighting will only embolden the militants.

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