Afghanistan's election commission on Tuesday ordered a Nov. 7 runoff in the disputed presidential poll after a fraud investigation dropped Prsident Hamid Karzai's votes below 50 percent of the total. Karzai accepted the finding and agreed to a second-round vote.
The announcement came two months to the day after the first-round vote and follows weeks of political uncertainty at a time when Taliban strength is growing.
Karzai said final results showing the need for a runoff were "legitimate, legal and according to the constitution of Afghanistan."
The Afghan leader spoke at a press conference alongside U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the head of the U.N. in Afghanistan, Kai Eide — a sign of the intense international pressure which preceded the announcement.
Karzai and Kerry were in talks as late as Tuesday afternoon, suggesting that up until the last moment there was a chance he would return to insisting on a first-round victory.
US President Obama welcomed Karzai's willingness to run in a new election against his main rival Abdullah Abdullah, saying his decision "established an important precedent for Afghanistan's new democracy."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also commended Karzai, as did U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban, however, also stressed that a runoff will be a "huge challenge" and promised more help from the world body.
Shortly before the press conference, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, said the commission, which organized the Aug. 20 vote, did not want to "leave the people of Afghanistan in uncertainty" any longer. He said Karzai no longer had more than 50 percent of the vote needed for a first-round victory and ordered a Nov. 7 runoff.
The possibility of a runoff emerged Monday after a U.N.-backed panel threw out nearly a million of Karzai's votes from the Aug. 20 ballot, pushing his totals below 50 percent and setting the stage for a runoff against Abdullah, a former foreign minister.
The commission determined that Karzai won 49.7 percent of the vote — higher than independent calculations but still low enough to force a runoff, according to a statement.
In a sign that political fissures are not completely smoothed over, the statement said the commission still had "some reservations" about the fraud rulings but decided to announce the runoff because of "time constraints, the imminent arrival of winter and existence of the problems in the country."
One alternative to a runoff that diplomats say was being discussed was a power-sharing deal, though the form that could take is unclear. And it could take weeks or months to hammer out an agreement between the two rivals. Karzai ruled out a coalition government, telling reporters, "there is no space for a coalition government in the law."
Yet the agreement that a runoff is required could be just the first step in negotiations to iron out these differences between the Karzai and Abdullah camps. Kerry said he had not discussed power-sharing with Karzai, but other diplomats have said that it has been part of discussion.
There are serious worries that a runoff — which Karzai is widely expected to win — may not produce any better result.
Another election risks the same fraud that derailed the Aug. 20 vote, along with inciting violence and increasing ethnic divisions. If there are any delays, the vote could also could be hampered by winter snows that block off much of the north of the country starting mid-November.
"I hope that the international community and the Afghan government and all others concerned will take every possible measure to provide security to the people so that when they vote, that vote is not called a fraud," Karzai said. AP