KABUL, (AP) – President Hamid Karzai’s chief political rival agreed Wednesday to take part in the Nov. 7 runoff election, setting the stage for a high-stakes showdown in the face of Taliban threats and approaching winter snows.
Ex-Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah made his comment to reporters one day after 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 Aug. 20 vote.
Those findings showed Karzai failed to win the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff.
Election officials have fired 200 district election chiefs — about half of those from the first round — following complaints by candidates or observers about misconduct in their regions, the U.N. said last week.
Abdullah said he telephoned Karzai to thank him for agreeing to the second-round ballot.
“We are completely ready for the second round,” Abdullah said, calling on Afghan officials to organize a “free, fair and credible election” with enough security encourage people to turn out and vote.
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.
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’s unclear if they would be able to fill open posts with better-qualified people.
“It is hard to see how a second round can be credible unless women’s security and access to the polls is dramatically improved,” said Rachel Reid, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Kabul.
The Independent Election Commission, the Afghan body that runs elections, must also finalize 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.
Abdullah said Wednesday that he is preparing a list of conditions that his team wants election organizers 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 organized on the same terms as the August vote.
“I will be flexible, but I will be serious about this because, after all, it is the transparency and fairness of the elections which will decide the outcome,” he said.
Karzai’s capitulation Tuesday was a relief to American officials and averted a constitutional crisis. But new balloting carries with it the risk of low turnout or another round of wholesale ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation.
That would bring the Obama administration no closer to its goal of a credible, legitimate Afghan government necessary to win public support in the U.S. for the war in Afghanistan and reverse the Taliban rise.
If the election goes relatively well, it’s unclear that a second-round win by Karzai, widely considered the favorite, would erase the stain brought on his leadership by widespread fraud in the first balloting Aug. 20.
Holding the poll as the country enters its cold season poses additional challenges, both for transporting ballots and drawing voters. U.S. and Afghan forces also must provide security to prevent a repeat of Taliban attacks in August that killed dozens. In some areas, militants cut off the ink-marked fingers of people who had voted.
During his news conference, Abdullah said he hoped the November election would take place on time and “under good circumstances.”
Abdullah said voters in parts of the country under Taliban threat will be risking their lives to cast ballots “and they should be confident that the risk is worthwhile.”
Karzai announced his decision Tuesday moments after the government election commission accepted the findings of auditors that the president fell short of a majority in the August ballot. The Karzai-influenced commission released preliminary results last month that showed the president winning with more than 54 percent out of a field of 36 candidates.
The president agreed to accept the findings after a day of intensive talks between Karzai and U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry praised the Afghan leader for “genuine leadership in the decision he has made today.” The two men met at least five times before the announcement.
ABC-TV reported from Washington that Karzai was refusing the runoff as late as Tuesday morning, even as reporters arrived at the presidential palace for a press conference in which he was expected to endorse a second round. He backed down after a flurry of telephone calls with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke.
Karzai supporters had complained of interference by foreigners, especially those on the U.N.-backed panel, which investigated and reported the fraud.
Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, noted that most of the rejected ballots were from his power base in the Pashtun-dominated south, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest. He said those votes were “disrespected” and should be investigated further.
In an interview later with The Associated Press, Kerry described the evolution in Karzai’s thinking.
“President Karzai really deeply believes he had won the election and … that the international community was kind of conspiring to push for a different outcome,” Kerry said in a telephone interview from Dubai. “He had people within his government, people within the election commission who felt they were being insulted about putting together a faulty election process.”
“There were a lot of very deep feelings about Afghanistan’s right to run its election, its competency in running it and so forth,” Kerry continued.