Afghan Election Commission Orders Runoff

Afghanistan's election commission has ordered a runoff between President Hamid Karzai and his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in the August presidential election. Karzai has accepted the findings of a fraud investigation that dropped his vote total below 50 percent. He has also endorsed the runoff. The second round of voting is set for Nov. 7.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Afghanistan has taken a step towards a legitimate government in Kabul. Now that one commission has thrown out many of the votes in last August's presidential election, another commission has ordered a runoff. President Hamid Karzai quickly endorsed that runoff election and announced his decision through an interpreter earlier this morning in Kabul.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): (Through translator) We welcome the decision made by the Independent Elections Commission. We believe the decision is legitimate, legal and according to the Constitution of Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: The runoff is scheduled for November 7th, and will pit Karzai against his strongest challenger, his own former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. This breakthrough comes after weeks of uncertainty, during which Karzai resisted the possibility that his vote count would fall below the 50 percent needed to win. Many leaders around the world believe the decision by Afghanistan's electoral commission to order a runoff could restore some credibility to that country's questionable election. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is following this story in Kabul, and says getting an election organized by early November presents some challenges.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: They have to hire new election workers who are competent. They have to get the ballots and the polling stations out to the countryside again, and they have to obviously put some measures in place that are going to hopefully prevent the fraud that went on last time.

MONTAGNE: Well, all of which would seem rather tough since it's a difficult terrain to vote in. There's a war going on in whole chunks of the country, and also the weather will be getting bad.

NELSON: That is true. There's already snow in the higher-level elevations. We saw some, in fact, driven to Kunduz not too long ago. So it is definitely going to be a challenge, but they seem determined to do this. And at this press conference today, President Karzai stood side-by-side with Senator John Kerry and U.N. Special Envoy Kai Eide, and they showed a unified front, and they said they were going to work this together.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's get to the fact that he was standing there with these, you know, representatives of the international community. What is the significance of that?

NELSON: Well, I think they were all trying to show that the political bickering that has been reported to be going on behind the scenes, that this is now come to an end, that they've moved to a new phase, that at this point, Mr. Karzai has put aside his concerns about the fraud investigations - which many here feel was tampered with by international authorities who want to see someone else in power - and to basically move forward here and to get people to come out and vote again. In fact, Mr. Karzai did mention that he has questions about the one million votes in the south that were set aside. Another 300,000 were in other parts of the country, he says. But he says this is not the time to talk about that. The time now is to try and encourage voters to come out. He urged 10 to 15 million people to come out and to make Afghanistan proud.

MONTAGNE: Well, OK. So he seems to be bowing, as well, to a certain amount of international pressure because it didn't seem as if the U.S. or any of the coalition forces wanted to see this drag on. Are there other reasons why President Karzai would come out now and endorse the runoff when, in fact, he'd been dragging his feet, as you've just said?

NELSON: Well, certainly, the Electoral Complaints Commission findings that were publically released yesterday cast some legitimacy on the claims of fraud allegations. So he was certainly under more pressure not to seem like he was holding up the process. But I think there was little double that he also extracted promises from the West over this. I mean, Mr. Eide from the U.N. and also Senator Kerry made a very strong point over and over again to talk about how President Karzai was very statesman-like, how he has the best interests of the country at heart, how, you know, that his government has pledged to deal with some of the issues of corruption and to provide more services to the people, to the Afghan people. And so I think that there was sort of - those sorts of promises were extracted, that there would be more positive, I guess, reflection of President Karzai in the West.

MONTAGNE: And also, based on, you know, polls taken, it's also a good chance he'd win a runoff election.

NELSON: There's certainly that chance, and the people who feel that the election process was marred to begin with question how it's going to be different this time, and how do you prevent fraud, or whatever the case might be. So he does have some confidence there. But again, Mr. Abdullah definitely has a good chance, as well. I mean, his numbers rose as a result of this fraud investigation.

MONTAGNE: And Soraya, what is the reaction among Afghans to having this runoff?

NELSON: Well, surprisingly, as tired as they are of the political bickering both here in Afghanistan and in the international community, they seem to be eager to go to a second round. I mean, some of the people we spoke to were talking about it being a patriotic duty and that the fate of Afghanistan should be in the hands of Afghans. And even those who felt that this was a process that was aimed at driving Karzai out of office felt that they would go out again and vote because they felt it was important for Mr. Karzai to remain.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking to us from Kabul, where Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission has called today for a runoff in the presidential election.

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