Hamid Karzai was declared president of Afghanistan yesterday, presenting Barack Obama and the West with the task of supporting a government shorn of legitimacy with troops and resources in a deeply unpopular war.
At the end of a voting process mired in fraud and controversy Mr Karzai was declared the winner – after a second round of polling was cancelled – by officials he himself had appointed to the election commission.
The US, Britain and the UN congratulated Mr Karzai on retaining power. But the compliments rang hollow given their earlier complaints about the corruption surrounding Karzai's administration, and about the ballot-stuffing and other dubious practices in the election's first round. It was these complaints that forced the incumbent president to agree to a run-off against his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah; this was only aborted when Abdullah pulled out.
Mr Karzai is expected to make a formal statement today in which he is likely to take a conciliatory line towards his opponents and pledge to form an inclusive government. Last night Western diplomats were stressing that the Afghan president has been told that he would have to agree to widespread reform and greater scrutiny from the international community.
One senior official said: "He will be strongly encouraged not to have warlords and drug dealers in his cabinet as he has done in the past. We have to justify to our people back home why, exactly, our men and women are fighting and dying in Afghanistan."
David Axelrod, a senior advisor to President Obama, said in Washington: "Obviously, there are issues we need to discuss, such as reducing the high level of corruption. These are issues we'll take up with President Karzai."
Mr Karzai's anointing took place in a prefabricated building next to a car park at the offices of the headquarters of the independent election commission (IEC) amid scenes of acrimony. Officials were repeatedly challenged on how Mr Karzai could be elected despite failing to get 50 per cent of the votes required under the constitution, and whether they had the legal right to award the victory to Mr Karzai.
A second round run-off became necessary after Mr Karzai was stripped of more than a million votes from the first round because of widespread ballot stuffing. When Dr Abdullah withdrew from the contest at the weekend, the IEC at first declared that the polling would continue nevertheless, and then stated that the matter would be decided by the country's Supreme Court.
However, yesterday afternoon, without consulting the Supreme Court, the IEC declared that Mr Karzai was the winner after all.
The reform of the IEC was one of the demands Dr Abdullah had made a precondition for his participation in the planned run-off election – demands brusquely rejected by the government. The decision was announced by Azizullah Ludin, the head of the IEC, whose dismissal has been another of Abdullah's demands.
Mr Ludin, who had previously stated that he would consult the Supreme Court, was asked whether Mr Karzai had a legal mandate and could become president without getting the requisite 50 per cent of the votes. He replied, "We are the commission, we have decided this, and this is the end of the matter."
Dr Abdullah, who has been in discreet talks with Karzai, immediately claimed that the decision was incompatible with the country's legislation although his spokesman refused to say whether he would be challenging it. "The announcement...by the election commission will not solve the problems of Afghanistan and it does not have any basis in law," said Fazel Sancharaki, a spokesman for Abdullah. He went on: "We expected that this commission would announce [a decision] like this because this commission has never been independent and has always supported President Karzai."