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    South Asia
     Nov 4, 2009
The polling booths are finally closed
By Derek Henry Flood

KABUL - A brief e-mail dropped into in-boxes in Kabul on Monday, announcing a press conference at the headquarters of the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) on Jalalabad Road.

The IEC began resembling a small, fortified airfield this summer as preparation began for the initial, and now final, August 20 presidential election. Its vast hangers acted as dissemination and collection points for ballots headed out to the country's 34 provinces. Late Monday afternoon became the last time that most reporters will visit the sprawling complex.

Azizullah Ludin, the IEC's chief officer, announced to a cramped cluster of cameras and microphones that incumbent Hamid


Karzai had been re-elected for a second five-year term as his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, had earlier withdrawn from the runoff scheduled for November 7.

One of Abdullah's main sticking points in the back-room negotiations before the now annulled vote was the removal of Ludin, a Karzai appointee whom Abdullah insisted was acting as the president's stooge. This request was apparently too much for Kabul's powerbrokers, and its rejection was likely one of the primary reasons for Abdullah's withdrawal.

A defiant Ludin said at Monday's briefing that not only was he not embarrassed by a very messy election process that had been riddled with allegations and counter-allegations of fraud, but rather proud that he and his organization had upheld the Afghan constitution. The runoff only became necessary after Karzai was stripped of a number of votes, pushing him below the 50% of total votes he needed to win outright.

In the scrum that followed Ludin's announcement, he hastily retreated into the IEC offices with his entourage, leaving Zekria Barakzai, his deputy, to deal with a barrage of tough questions.

In contrast to Ludin, Barakzai said he had many regrets over the election process and referenced the constitutional framework that allowed for such a fiasco in a country at war with itself and with international forces occupying small tracts of it.

Asia Times Online asked Barakzai whether the Afghan constitution needed to be amended to avoid a repeat scenario.

"There are a lot of issues that need to be amended in the long term and one of them is this gap that exists when one of the candidates withdraws after the announcement of the first results and before the conducting of the second round of elections, yes, I think there is room for amendment to our constitution." Asked whether this was a flaw in the nascent Afghan system, Barakzai simply nodded with a "yes".

In awarding Karzai victory, the IEC said it would be wrong to ask Afghans to risk their lives in the face of edict-based threats of physical violence from the Taliban and only one candidate. "It doesn't make sense to put people's lives, Afghan security agencies and international security forces at risk, [also considering] the economic situation, stability, putting the country in [more] uncertainty just because we feel the need to show that something is happening. The result is already known, so it was the logical and legitimate decision of the IEC."

The boisterous third-placed candidate in August's first round of voting, the independent, Ramazan Bashardost, would most likely have been happy to replace Abdullah, but the IEC insisted there were no legal means to make this happen.

Bashardost, an outspoken, Paris-educated candidate from the Hazara minority was closing in on nearly 10% of the vote by mid-September - counting was a slow process - but was shut out of the final process that requires a two-man runoff. The IEC said it had not been in touch with Bashardost since preparations for the runoff began, and painting him as irrelevant when asked if a replacement for Abdullah was even a remote possibility.

Barakzai told reporters that the decision on Karzai had been made just two hours before the public proclamation, though he already had his talking points ready when saying that "this is not Saddam Hussein's Iraq" and that "we are not a communist state where we have only one candidate". Barakzai was essentially saying that the IEC was declaring Karzai victorious for the sake of Afghanistan's democratic bona fides.

In a letter to the international community in Kabul, the IEC also pointed to the costs of putting on another election, as if doing a favor to the financial exoskeleton on which it depends. "To prevent the high cost of the run-off election," the letter said. This overlooks the fact that the international community was willing to assume the costs of the event.

Asia Times Online questioned Barakzai on the security issue, asking whether it would have been acceptable for voters to risk death had Abdullah stayed in the race.

Barakzai shot back, "We were ready and our security agencies were ready to conduct this next round and had Abdullah not dropped out, it would have been worth the risk to show that the people of Afghanistan were ready for democracy."

The IEC insists its decision is final; like it or not, Afghanistan and the world will have to come to terms with another five years of Karzai's leadership in what is probably the world's most crucial foreign policy imbroglio.

Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Nov 2, 2009)


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