The United Nations is flying one of its top election experts into Kabul to help break Afghanistan’s political deadlock, as preparations get underway for a possible second round of voting.
Julius Cavendish In Kabul and Nick Meo
The arrival of Carlos Valenzuela in Kabul this weekend would be the most visible sign yet of increasingly desperate efforts by the international community to bring the drawn-out and contentious aftermath of last month’s election to a tidy end.
The UN hopes that he will be able to find a solution that makes it appear that foreigners are not influencing the result too much.
Mr Valenzuela has been given the job of ensuring a final certified result from the vote on August 20 is announced in time for a second round to take place if necessary.
A run-off between President Hamid Karzai and his challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, appears to many to be a way out of the political crisis in which Afghanistan is now mired.
But with winter approaching, a decision must be taken soon. The Election Complaints Commission, a UN-backed complaints watchdog, is being pressed to hurry up and investigate complaints of fraud which are holding up a final announcement.
A preliminary tally has put President Hamid Karzai in the lead with 54 percent of the vote – 3.1 million of 5.7 million votes cast in total. Dr Abdullah has 27.7 per cent of the vote.
Mr Karzai has conceded that fraud took place in August’s poll but insists that it was on a far smaller scale than reported, and not enough to alter the result.
Several observation missions have said otherwise. Last week European Union election observers announced that a quarter of the entire vote of 1.5 million ballots was suspect, including 1.1 million cast for Mr Karzai.
The ECC said it found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud”, and ordered a recount of about ten per cent of polling stations.
Mr Karzai’s election team on the other hand has said it believes his first-round victory will be upheld. Dr Abdullah has said fraud took place on a huge scale. He said he expected the ECC to disallow enough of the president’s votes to lower his share below 50 per cent and force a second round.
Diplomats in Kabul hope that the two politicians can join forces to set up a government of national unity, but enmity between the pair has grown and Dr Abdullah has ruled out joining a Karzai government. There are fears that Dr Abdullah’s supporters could cause mayhem on the streets of Kabul if they believe the president has won by fraud.
Pressure is now being brought on the election commissions to hurry up.
“The imperative being made clear to the Independent Election Commission is that if the second round has to take place, it has to take place this year,” a western diplomat told The Sunday Telegraph. The IEC is the body that ran the elections.
“The country cannot be left in limbo,” the diplomat added. “There will be bloodshed [otherwise].”
If a second round cannot be held before snow starts falling in mid-October, it may not be possible before April, leaving a political vacuum at a time when Taliban attacks are on the increase.
In anticipation of a run-off, more indelible ink to stain voters’ fingers has been ordered. Fresh ballot papers are being printed in London, and election staff are preparing for a second vote.
Mr Valenzuela, a Colombian educated in the United States and France, is a veteran of troubled elections. He was involved with Iraq’s 2005 vote, which was held at a time of deteriorating security. Before the vote he also publicly criticised the then US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld for suggesting that voting might not take place in areas worst-hit by violence.
He has previously led teams in East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as Iraq. Colleagues describe him as a “real troubleshooter” and an experienced technocrat, with no agenda other than pulling off a credible vote.
He will certainly have his work cut out in Kabul.
The mood in the Afghan capital is sour and fearful, with many Afghans angry about the way the election went and deeply unsure about what direction politics will take now.
Dr Abullah believes he could win a second round which would be a straightforward contest between him and Mr Karzai. The former foreign minister would hope to win support from tribal chieftains who may defect from Karzai, as well as supporters of the other candidates in the election.
Other options are also being considered, such as a re-vote in limited areas where there was suspicion of fraud.
Some Afghans believe the impasse could be broken by calling a loya jirga, a grand meeting of chiefs and parliamentarians. There is also a possibility that Mr Karzai may declare a state of emergency, although his aides have said he has no such plans.