The king of fraud capitulates

Afghanistan's Hamad Karzai has faced up to the unpalatable reality that he did not win the August election, and must now front up for a run-off in two weeks time. How can Afghan citizens, so widely defrauded the first time, be convinced to go through it all again?

It is a fair bet the international diplomatic community breathed a sigh of relief that the haughty Hamad Karzai has capitulated and agreed to hold a run-off election in Afghanistan in a couple of weeks.

It is not such a surety that the pawns in all of this—the citizens of Afghanistan—will be so thrilled, because, really, what is in it for them?

All the American and European chatter of the beauty of and need for democracy will be ringing a little hollow given the findings of the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which has found widespread fraud and ballot stuffing to the level of 96% in some of the ballot boxes they scrutinized following a deluge of complaints.

So the supposed 55% victory Karzai claimed has been slashed back to just under the required 50% needed to avoid a run-off.

Karzai’s team has been claiming right up till his forced announcement of a November 7 runoff that the whole process is nothing more than a US and British conspiracy to rob him of victory.

Well he’d know about ‘robbing’ now, wouldn’t he!

What is clear is some mighty tough arm twisting has been going on behind the highly ornate doors of the Kabul palace. The Americans, French and British over the last few days have had to read Karzai the riot act in order to make him confront the reality that now he’s been exposed as a cheat, he has little room to move, and certainly nowhere to hide. Such a diplomatic pincer movement was only necessary because Karzai had been so determined to push on through and keep his crown.

Until the reality that is, that stamping his loafer would have little impact on a seriously skeptical world. With a sub-50% vote he could hardly declare himself a legitimate President—and I use that adjective advisedly—and he would not be able to secure any more foreign troops to help him sort out the bloody chaos that is Afghanistan.

President Obama has been holding off on a troop strategy because, quite simply, he could not send in more young people to die for an abjectly illegitimate administration. But even with a November poll, does anyone really believe anything will change?

Certainly there is much at stake for those who will be expected to forget what happened to their August 20 votes, and try and find some faith that November 7 will be different. Who could blame the voters if they decide to avoid the security risks, the brutal intimidation and the high possibility of a new round of fraud, and stay at home putting their efforts in to trying to eke out a living.

The people of Afghanistan who are not directly involved in the election campaigns must be sick to death—literally—of the word ‘election’ and the promises of its elusive ‘democracy’. In a country so inured to corruption it is difficult to situate the relevance of the palace battle in their desperate lives.

It is not difficult to see the relevance of this game for the rest of the world.

Afghanistan is in such a mess because the Bush administration abandoned it before the battle was won. That allowed the Taliban—armed with weapons the Americans had provided them in a former life—to resurface and try to take control. Oops, said the world, we’d better get back in there, and that has so far cost many countries many, many young lives, billions of dollars worth of military hardware, and heaven knows how much credibility. Now no-one knows what the battle is about. Bin Laden, wherever he is, must be chuckling away as the target is now a band of well organised and well financed ‘religious’ thugs who have never committed a terrorist act outside Afghanistan and Pakistan. The link to 9/11 has long been severed.

In the next two weeks that Taliban grouping has a fabulous PR opportunity to present the whole election/democracy thing as the expensive game of puppets of foreign governments. The presence of US Senator John Kerry watching over Karzai’s capitulation press conference can only endorse that image.

Then there’s the risk Afghanistan’s notoriously brutal winter will kick in before the run-off election can be held, making it virtually impossible to reach remote areas for voting purposes.

Kerry and Karzai have said there has been no negotiation about filling any potential power vacuum with say, a government of national unity involving Dr Abdullah Abdullah, but nor have they ruled out a Plan B which could be power sharing. But that is literally in the hands of the snow gods.

It’s a pretty depressing situation, with the only positive gloss perhaps being that the fraud was exposed and the election will go through the required process of a runoff given no one candidate made it past the 50% mark. If, and that’s a mighty big ‘if’, security can be put in place in time, if people can be persuaded to turn out to vote again, and if there is no repeat of such glaring fraud, perhaps some credibility can be restored.

Then of course there is the sting in this whole sorry saga. It is most likely that Karzai will win. Democracy is one tough mistress.