As winter descends on the Hindu Kush mountains, the postelection political crisis in Afghanistan appears to be heating up.
The UN-backed Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) announced on October 16 that it completed its investigation into fraud allegations relating to the June 20 vote.
The ECC's next step is to issue its findings. From there the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) will determine whether the fraud was significant enough to alter the preliminary tally, which handed incumbent President Hamid Karzai a first-round victory.
If the IIEC reveals that the fraud did not bring Karzai's vote count below the 50 percent barrier, the incumbent wins. If the IEC reveals that Karzai did not, in fact, win an outright majority, then he will have to face the second-place finisher, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, in a second round.
Whatever the verdict, the concept of Afghan democracy has suffered a serious blow that could undermine a runoff, and surely seriously test whoever ends up sitting in the presidential palace.
Weary Afghan Voters
Wadir Safi, who teaches political science at Kabul University and frequently comments on Afghan politics, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the IEC will end up announcing that a second round is necessary, "as a formula to resolve" the postelection crisis.
But he suggests that only a high turnout by Afghan voters in a second round could restore the election's credibility and the legitimacy of the future government. And considering the circumstances, Safi doesn't think that's going to happen:
"During the first round there were bombings, rocket attacks, and fighting went on in 17 provinces and fewer than 20 percent of the people actually voted," he says
"This time around, I don't think that more than 5 percent of the people will participate. And if that happens, it will undermine the legitimacy of whoever wins the future vote."
Kabul-based analyst Nasrullah Stanekzai says that the "election process has diverted from its legal course and has now become too political, and the final decision about it will also be a political one."
He also disagrees, in principle, with the idea of letting election fraud determine whether a second round should be held.
"If these elections are judged on the basis of fraud having been committed, then there should be a fresh election," he says, arguing that only a sound election can determine the top two candidates needed for a runoff.
Looking at the prospect of holding a new election or a second-round runoff, Stanekzai says that the "disadvantages outweigh the advantages" in either case.
Considering that the country is still at war, Stanekzai says, it would be very difficult for the IEC and candidates to prepare for, canvass, and hold a second-round vote within 15 days of the final results, as stipulated by Afghan election law.
"In my view, the big problem in Afghanistan is that winter sets in in 15 days. There are no security guarantees," he says. "If a runoff is held between two candidates only, I am afraid it would turn into an ethnic issue and this is very dangerous for Afghanistan."
If, say, the second round were postponed until spring, that too could set off a crisis, according to Stanekzai, as Afghan law and political traditions have no precedents to cope with such a scenario. "I think that overall this will do more harm than good. And if somebody says that there will be no fraud in the next round, nobody can guarantee that."
One sign of uncertainty among Afghans derives from reports suggesting that many entrepreneurs are moving their capital and even their families to safety in Dubai and other destinations in the Persian Gulf.
Too Many Divisions
Some observers have suggested a wild-card scenario that could placate Afghans' fears and eliminate the need for a second round -- a power-sharing deal between Karzai's and Abdullah's political camps.
But following the elections -- in which preliminary official results gave Karzai 55 percent of the vote to Abdullah's 29 percent -- both sides accused each other of fraud and irregularities. And the recriminations have since developed ethnic undertones, with hawks from each side portraying themselves as protectors -- of Pashtuns in Karzai's case, and of Tajiks in Abdullah's case.
Each side boasts backers and leaders representing virtually all of Afghanistan's ethnic and linguistic groups, but there are concerns that the damage has already been done.
Controversies over the Afghan election results have divided the international community as well.
Earlier this month, Peter Galbraith, the deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, was dismissed after accusing his boss, senior Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, of concealing information about the extent of election fraud to Karzai's benefit.
Eide responded with an angry defense of his reputation as an honest broker. He acknowledged there had been "significant" fraud but said that Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador, had no way to substantiate claims that as much as 30 percent of the vote count was influenced by fraud.
Analyst Stanekzai suggests that the election crisis has complicated the prospects for democracy and rule of law in the country. He holds the Afghan government, political leaders, and international community responsible for the current mess.
He says Afghan politicians and presidential contenders must pay attention to the stability of Afghanistan. "They should not further undermine Afghanistan's stability by striking political deals with foreigners or powerful circles to gain power."
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.