WASHINGTON — A runoff vote is very likely between incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his closest challenger in the country’s highly contested election, Karzai’s ambassador to the United States said Thursday.
Said Tayeb Jawad predicted the runoff would follow an announcement expected within days by the U.N.-backed electoral commission looking into fraud in the August election.
The ambassador is the first official from Karzai’s government to predict publicly that the challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, will have enough support to force a runoff. Jawad said all sides should work hard to hold the runoff vote swiftly.
A two-week deadline mandated in the country’s constitution is “impossible,” Jawad said. He worried that if the deadline slipped far into November, the weather will be too cold in parts of the country. Voters in Afghanistan, a country of great distances and few roads, often must travel long distances and spend significant time outdoors.
Jawad spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“To delay until spring is a recipe for disaster,” Jawad said, because Afghanistan needs clear leadership. Delay would also undermine the Afghan government’s relationship with the United States, he said.
“We will have … a government under pressure to deliver results” but with its top leadership in limbo, Jawad said.
The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which is tasked with determining how many fraudulent votes to toss out, could release its findings as early as Saturday. The nation’s main electoral body would then announce whether Abdullah will face Karzai in a runoff.
A Western diplomat with knowledge of international discussions surrounding the election said Thursday that if disqualification for fraud take Karzai below 50 percent, the United Nations will take the position that a second round is required unless the candidates agree to an alternative arrangement.
Uncertainty over the election has eaten away at Karzai’s legitimacy as the Taliban-led insurgency in the countryside deepens and the Obama administration debates its strategy in a war that has become increasingly unpopular in the U.S.
“While the international community is reviewing its policy, it’s crucial that the process end with an outcome which leads to a legitimate government which could be a partner for the international community … and deal with the challenges which are ahead of it,” Abdullah said at his home in Kabul on Thursday.
Abdullah’s camp believes a runoff is imminent. Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said Thursday he expects otherwise.
Preliminary results show Karzai won re-election with about 54.6 percent of the vote, but the commission could discard enough fraudulent ballots to drop his tally below 50 percent and force a second round.
The top U.N. official in Afghanistan has acknowledged “widespread fraud” occurred in the Aug. 20 poll.