According to The New York Times, the Afghan ambassador to Washington, Said Tayeb Jawad, said that a runoff election between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah appears likely.
This is obviously big news. Until today, no one close to Karzai suggested any possibility of a second round of elections. So when Jawad says a runoff is likely, we should understand they are a near certainty.
But is it good news? That depends on what happens next.
On one hand, Abdullah has previously suggested he may not be able to control his followers if the fraud is not properly corrected, despite attempts to calm emotions. A runoff would prevent likely violent protests in the streets, as feared by Juan Cole. Besides, there is a strong moral argument that Afghans deserve a legitimate election to let their true voices be heard.
But the question is whether a runoff will turn out any better than the first round. There is good cause for doubt. To avoid the harsh Afghan winter, a runoff will have to take place within the next two weeks or so - hardly enough time to make necessary reforms that would prevent another fraud-ridden vote. In addition, it is unlikely Karzai was directly responsible for most of the fraudulent votes in his name. Even if he wants an honest vote, it would be hard for Karzai to effectively crack down on his warlord and drug dealer cronies. In short, the only thing worse than a fraudulent election would be a fraudulent runoff that costs extra money and lives while simultaneously decimating any remaining Afghan hope for justice.
In a second scenario, elections are put off until the spring, allowing time for necessary reforms. While I think getting the runoff right is more important than conducting it quickly, this path would place Afghanistan in constitutional limbo. To bridge the gap, some sort of transitional government would have to be put in place, as suggested by Abdullah. But actually doing so would prove tricky and, if done wrong, the risk of violence would be quite high.
The best outcome would be some sort of power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and Abdullah, as suggested by Fareed Zakaria and others. While Abdullah has emphatically rejected that idea before, he may be more amenable if a runoff is declared. Per the Times article today, some experts believe Abdullah is waiting for the final verdict on fraud, hoping his bargaining position will strengthen after any announcement. If he feels he can gain the upper hand in negotiations with Karzai, then power-sharing might not sound so bad after all.
In sum, a Karzai-Abdullah deal would minimize the risk of violence, provide definitive, immediate closure and confer much needed legitimacy on the Afghan government. Only then will the U.S. have the partner it needs to conduct an effective campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.