Once the extent of fraud in the Afghan election had been established, even to the approximate degree that was possible, something clearly had to be done. The choice, presented to President Hamid Karzai on many occasions after the election by US and UN officials, lay between agreeing to hold a second round of voting or starting coalition negotiations with the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah.
It is not known what pressure the US may have exerted to convince Mr Karzai to abandon the third option – remaining in power for another term, on the grounds that the election victory he had claimed was fair – but the central argument can well be imagined. Why should US and other foreign troops risk their lives propping up a government that had so rigged the election to disguise its lack of popular support?
There are pluses and minuses to the option Mr Karzai has belatedly chosen: a second-round run-off to take place on 7 November. The minuses are that it prolongs a process that has already proved extraordinarily difficult and divisive, and will expose foreign and Afghan troops to further danger. Given the defects in the arrangements for the first round, the low turn-out and the delays in the count, it is not unreasonable to ask whether things are likely to be much better the second time around.
Mr Karzai is, rightly, pleading for a high turn-out, but poor security, and the questionable appetite of the electorate for another vote, militate against him getting it. A second round thus risks compounding the problems.
In principle, though, a run-off is preferable to a coalition of former enemies concluded under duress. Mr Karzai, who easily topped the poll the first time around, even when the fraudulent votes were excluded, would appear to have little to lose. And the mandate for whoever wins will be more credible than it would otherwise have been. However rough around the edges, Afghan democracy has another chance. To call Mr Karzai's decision "statesmanlike", however, as Britain and others did yesterday, is flattery too far. A statesman would have agreed to a second round weeks ago; Mr Karzai has simply accepted the least bad option.Reuse content