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Kim Sengupta: President did the deals that made him a winner anyway

The scene was evocative, Abdullah Abdullah making his stand against corruption in front of hundreds of grizzled old warriors and tribal chiefs. The setting was the huge tent built for the loya jirga after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, an apt symbol of a new beginning as the former comrade of the great Mujaheddin commander Ahmed Shah Masood threw down a gauntlet for a possible future challenge to Hamid Karzai for the leadership of Afghanistan.

Despite all the criticism heaped on Mr Karzai for fraud in the election and for all the surprisingly strong showing of Mr Abdullah, there was always going to be one winner in this race, Hamid Karzai.

The demographics of Afghanistan mean that Mr Karzai, from the majority Pashtun population, could not be beaten by a man who is of mixed Pashtun and Tajik parentage, but draws his support overwhelmingly from Tajiks. Besides, deals done by Mr Karzai had ensured that he would have got the other significant minority votes, the Uzbeks and Hazaras.

It is one of the ironies of the electoral mess that Mr Karzai would probably have won in the first round of the polls even without his supporters engaging in massive and blatant ballot stuffing. To his surprise and anger he was penalised for the fraud and forced to run a second round.

The incumbent president and his followers, and indeed many Afghans who do not directly support him blame the West for putting them through a second electoral process.

Around $300m (£180m) has been spent so far on the elections. And then there are the lives of soldiers, civilians and officials lost in attacks by the Taliban who vowed to disrupt the polls. Further costs, human and material, to get Mr Karzai to his 50 per cent of votes officially needed for victory would cause an international outcry. Many UN staff, who have seen seven of their colleagues murdered – five last week in Kabul – in the course of election work, are close to revolt against taking part in such an empty exercise.

The likely course now is election officials will take the matter to the supreme court which could waive the rules demanding a second round. Western officials insist that Mr Karzai will in future be pressurised to carry out reforms and take a firmer stand against corruption. But they will have to continue dealing with Hamid Karzai. There is no one else around.