Western envoys: Expect run-off in Afghanistan election

The Paris meeting today was seen as an effort to pressure incumbent President Hamid Karzai amid the review of more than 1,000 complaints of voting fraud.

PARIS – Western envoys to Afghanistan meeting here Wednesday praised the Afghan people for holding the crucial Aug. 20 presidential election during war. But they also said the West should “be prepared for a run-off” if too many votes are ruled “irregular,” as Kai Eide, the top United Nations envoy for Afghanistan, put it in a separate interview.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off between the top two vote-getters will be held. The latest results show that incumbent president Hamid Karzai has  47.3 percent of the vote with more than 60 percent of the ballots counted.

The meeting of German, French, British, UN, and US envoys to Afghanistan was regarded as a show of unity and support in the midst of an Afghan mission seen as unpopular in Europe and dubbed by some US media as “Mr. Obama’s war.”

In European circles, the meeting was also seen as an effort to pressure Afghan President Karzai in the wake of some 1,000 complaints of ballot stuffing and fraud now under review, and to garner support for US efforts to target of irregular election behavior and corruption. Hosted by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the gathering also included British envoy Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Germany’s Bernd Mutzelburg, US envoy Richard Holbrooke, Mr. Eide of the UN, and 22 other representatives.

Mr. Holbrooke sought to counter reports that he and the Obama administration were at odds with Mr. Karzai, now leading in the vote count over challenger Abdullah Abdullah. Holbrooke said he had met Karzai Aug. 23 for four hours and “no one shouted, and no one left the room” – though he added the meeting took place before the vote fraud charges were registered with the Afghan-led independent election commission.

Holbrooke stated the US government has “no candidate and no preference.... Whether there is a first round or a run off ... we want a fair process ... taking into account the election complaints commission.”

Election commission reviewing complaints
That commission is now going through nearly 1,000 complaints, of which 600 have been addressed, the envoys said – predicting they would finish the process by Sept. 17.

A report by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times this week describes a case near Kandahar of a local tribe that was prevented from voting – but that 23,900 ballots, all marked for Karzai, were shipped to Kabul the evening of the elections. Mr. Eide in Paris said the story itself was proof of a main message the envoys wished to send, “that this was a better election than five years ago. Five years ago that story would not have been possible to report.”

The election count, aided by some 3,000 donkeys, Eide said, has been slow. But the Paris gathering expressed respect for the “democratic whisperings” in the country, as Mr. Kouchner put it.

On Tuesday the French foreign ministry stated that the military presence added to the Afghan mission to aid the elections would stay until the security situation was resolved. Eide stated that “four to five” Afghan police are killed each day, which makes recruiting new policemen difficult.

Source of counted votes unclear
What remains unclear ahead of the expected results on Sept. 17, according to a Pashtun journalist contacted by phone, is whether or not the current votes that have Karzai leading by a slim margin, have been tallied from the north or south of Afghanistan. Abdullah Abdullah, half ethnic Tajik and half Pashtun, has a stronger base in the north, and Karzai in the Pashtun south. If votes still to be counted are mainly from the south, the outcome is seen to favor Karzai.

But the journalist, who covered the elections and asked not to be named for security purposes, argued that applying Western or international standards to the Aug. 20 elections are misguided. He says, as the envoys did, that the nation should be graded by how well it improved over the 2004 vote. A nation that is struggling, with toxic ethnic divides, a pre-modern infrastructure, tribal, where the Taliban and drug lords are active and at war – can’t be judged by first world standards. “I’m not sure Afghanistan can even be compared to a third-world election standard yet,” he said

Ballot count should be quicker than in Minnesota
Amid reports of a deteriorating military fight with the Taliban in general, Holbrooke offered that “On Aug. 20 [the election date] the Taliban failed.... They said they would destroy the elections, and they didn’t.

He said that voting irregularities take place “even in democracies that are not at war,” and said an outcome would not wait as long as the six months it took to decide the recent Senate race in Minnesota.

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