Up Front

Abdullah’s Withdrawal from the Runoff Election in Afghanistan

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Editor’s Note: Abdullah Abdullah officially withdrew from the presidential runoff election in Afghanistan on November 1, permitting President Hamid Karzai to begin a new term in office.

If as reported Mr. Abdullah, who polled second behind President Karzai in Afghanistan’s August 20 presidential election and as such was slated to run against him in a two-man runoff November 7, pulls out of the race, it will be a major mistake. Karzai’s reelection will then be generally legitimate despite Abdullah’s protestations, though the legitimacy he gains from the process will be somewhat tainted by Abdullah’s decision. But the latter amounts more to a concession than a principled stand. While Karzai has many other things to do to gain legitimacy, mostly in the area of governance, he will have done enough to be seen as the rightfully reelected president of the country.

Abdullah’s complaint is that some members of one of  Afghanistan’s independent election boards are too friendly to Karzai, and thus not trustworthy as arbiters of the election outcome.  On the merits of the argument, he may have at least a partial point.  But the other election board is by all accounts reputable – and the two of them together, aided by the international community, ultimately returned some rigor and reason to the first round of the presidential race.  They found evidence of fraud and stuffing of ballot boxes – and threw out lots of votes as a result.  It was this good and honorable work that led to the situation where the November 7 runoff was needed, since President Karzai’s initial tally of votes of around 55 to 60 percent ultimately was reduced to 48 percent.  Since the latter figure was less than half of all voters, a two-man showdown was required by the Afghan constitution, and preparations for the November 7 vote have been underway since Senator Kerry, Ambassador Eikenberry, and others helped convince Karzai to accept the verdict of the independent boards.

To be sure, none of this should have happened.  Karzai tolerated too many shenanigans both before the elections (when state-run media covered him and his campaign far more than it covered other candidates) and on election day, when many ballot boxes were stuffed.  The excuses that Karzai did not know what was happening, or that such cheating was semi-justified because it compensated for low turnout by Pashtun voters (mostly friendly to Karzai) in areas of the country where the insurgency is strongest, do not wash.  Karzai was finally persuaded to accept that reality, due to a great deal of work by his fellow Afghans, key Americans, and others.

On balance, therefore, the Afghan election process while ugly and far from perfect has been a glass 52 percent full.  Yet Abdullah, sensing inevitable defeat perhaps, has refused to see it that way.  Most expect that Karzai would win around 60 percent of the vote in the runoff; Abdullah, knowing he has almost no chance, has instead apparently decided to make himself a political martyr.  But that decision hurts Afghan’s young democracy more than is warranted by the circumstances.

President Karzai is hardly out of the woods.  The crisis of legitimacy he faces among his fellow Afghans remains, due to poor governance more than electoral fraud.  Assuming he is now awarded a second term, he will have to re-earn that trust and legitimacy from his fellow citizens – or the insurgency will continue to metastasize and the war will be lost.  He needs to indulge in less favoritism towards his friends, family, and fellow Durrani tribesman; he needs to reduce graft and corruption, fire a few of the worst apples from his national and regional governments, and spread the benefits of the country’s wealth (or, more accurately, the international aid effort) more evenly to include more of the Ghilzai tribe (the core of the Taliban) as well as others.  This is the enormous post-election agenda before us.  Abdullah’s decision is a distraction from that agenda, but should not be allowed to capture our attention for long.