Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

Afghanistan: Karzai declared president, but is Abdullah the real winner?

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 2 November 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Afghanistan: Karzai declared president, but is Abdullah the real winner?, 2 November 2009, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Aunohita Mojumdar: 11/02/09

In Afghanistan, the loser of the presidential election may end up the winner, and the victor may be the one who reflects on the result as a severe political setback.

The election end-game began November 1, when the challenger, Abdullah Abdullah bowed out of a run-off scheduled for November 7. On November 2, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission formally declared incumbent Hamid Karzai as the election winner. The ruling brought to a close two-plus months of political turmoil stoked by widespread vote-rigging that marred the first round of the presidential election on August 20. The tainted voting weakened the Afghan government, as well as undermined the democratization process, at a time when Kabul and the international community are confronting an increasingly confident insurgency.

The key to Afghanistan's stabilization prospects may well be whether Karzai can restore his administration's legitimacy. But it is Abdullah who stands to play the most crucial role in restoring the population's trust in its government, some experts believe.

"Today the whole process and its legitimacy depend on him [Abdullah]," said Haroun Mir, the director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS).

Speaking with EurasiaNet minutes after Abdullah's withdrawal announcement on November 1, Abdullah-supporter Wali Masood, the brother of the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Masood, appeared buoyant. "We are a force to be reckoned with for any government in this country," he asserted. "They [members of the Karzai administration] cannot continue without taking us into consideration."

Heading into the August 20 election, Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik, stood virtually no chance of winning the election – whether outright in the first round, or in a run-off – because of his inability to muster a united opposition. Given his previous political roles, most notably as Karzai's foreign minister until 2006, Abdullah lacked a strong and cohesive political base to support his candidacy. Even the ethnic-Tajik opposition failed to unite around him. A key Northern Alliance ally, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, campaigned for Karzai.

Nevertheless, Abdullah emerged as the man of the moment. His skillful campaigning caused his popularity to surge, said Mir. "He had lost touch with the ordinary people as foreign minister. Now he has emerged as a national leader," the political analyst said.

Ironically, Abdullah's prestige is now probably higher following the first-round vote-rigging scandal than it would have been had August 20 balloting been deemed largely free and fair.

As allegations of fraud came to light after the voting, Abdullah pushed hard for a second round. His persistence helped keep the pressure on the international community to investigate fraud claims. Most analysts agree that Abdullah's stance was designed primarily to gain greater political leverage, which, from the start, he wanted to use to force Karzai into making political concessions. His decision to withdraw from the race before the run-off thus was consistent with his overall political game plan.

John Dempsey, head of the United States Institute of Peace office in Kabul reckons Abdullah never anticipated the process would go this far. "He did not expect to become the president, and I doubt if he wants to be the president. He is using his candidacy to secure some concessions from the government and to boost his name," Dempsey contended.

Some observers believe Abdullah now has enough influence to promote a rebalancing of power, shifting authority to the legislative branch and to the regions. Or he could use his influence to place political allies in positions of authority as cabinet ministers or governors, as well as gain more say in how billions of dollars in foreign assistance are allocated.

"He is realistic," says Dempsey. Abdullah "realizes he has more bargaining power now than he may ever have. This is the best time for him to make a deal."

If he does not use it effectively, Abdullah's influence could dissipate as quickly as it has surged. Much of his ability to shape this leverage will depend on the international pressure on Karzai. The international community is clearly tired of Afghanistan's electoral process, yet the United States and European Union still want the government to be viewed as legitimate. Whether Abdullah can force Karzai to share power and to what extent depends largely on the international stamina.

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.

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