Kim Sengupta: Democracy will be casualty in the race to cut deal

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The elections held in Afghanistan in August were meant to show how democracy has taken root in the country since the overthrow of the Taliban. Instead the polls became mired in massive fraud, reopened historic, ethnic and political divisions, and led to questions about why Western troops are being sent to fight and die for a seemingly corrupt and cynical government.

There was widespread criticism by the US, Britain and their allies about the ballot-stuffing carried out on behalf of incumbent President, Hamid Karzai. But the investigation into malpractice, and the steps being put forward to rectify what took place, now present major problems for the international community.

The Election Complaints Commission (ECC), the watchdog on malpractice, is expected to strip down Mr Karzai's majority from the 54 per cent declared before the investigation to below 50 per cent, forcing a second round run-off with his nearest rival, the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

However, a run-off is also dependant on Mr Karzai and his supporters accepting the decision of the ECC, a body where non-Afghans have a majority. The Independent Election Commission (IEC), which is dominated by Afghans – and by Karzai placemen – are threatening to ignore the ECC's demands for reballoting amid claims by the President of a foreign conspiracy to prevent him resuming power.

Under the constitution the ECC is supposed to supersede the IEC. But there is little appetite for a second round among either the international community or the Afghans, except among the most diehard supporters of Dr Abdullah. It would be a logistical and security nightmare to organise fresh polls before the bitter Afghan winter closes in.

The alternative would be to wait until next spring, But this would leave the state in limbo while accusations and recriminations continue to fly. A delayed run-off would also create difficulties for Barrack Obama as he decides whether to send tens of thousands of extra troops, as requested by his ground commander, General Stanley McChrystal.

Thus the stream of calls to Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah from Hillary Clinton, Gordon Brown, Bernard Kouchner, and others urging them to arrive at some form of a deal.

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