OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged voters to brave the threat of Taliban reprisals and cast their ballots one more time Tuesday as he hailed Afghanistan's two presidential rivals for endorsing a run-off election aimed at ending a protracted political crisis.
The country's first round of democratic balloting earlier this year was "not without controversy," but it's important to remember how far the country has come since the Taliban regime fell eight years ago, Harper said in a statement.
"Our goal in Afghanistan is to help Afghans rebuild their country as a stable, democratic and self-sufficient society," he said.
"Canada continues to lend our support as Afghans proceed into the second round of elections. This is an important step in the country's ongoing transition to democracy. It is particularly important that these elections are an Afghan-led process."
Harper urged Afghans to vote in the face of repeated and ongoing threats by the Taliban, calling it "an important step in the country's ongoing transition to democracy."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, agreed to the run-off Tuesday after a UN commission threw out nearly a third of the ballots cast for Karzai in the Aug. 20 presidential election.
The new vote will take place on Nov. 7.
Karzai's decision, which followed extensive international lobbying in the face of fears he wouldn't agree to a constitutionally mandated second ballot, drew praise from Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban and the province where some 2,700 Canadian troops are based with NATO forces.
Kandahar provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa, an Afghan-Canadian academic who lived in Coquitlam, B.C., before he was appointed to the post late last year, called Tuesday's announcement a sign that the spirit of democracy is alive and well in Afghanistan.
"This is another example of how democracy can prevail," Wesa said. "Democracy is new to this country. People are not used to it, but everything was handled very well in the end."
The prospect of a runoff is unpopular with many in the province, notably the mayor of Kandahar city, who said he fears it will invite further attacks by the Taliban, which mounted an aggressive intimidation campaign in the weeks before the initial vote in August.
But both Wesa and Canadian military officials say the security situation in the city has improved dramatically, and don't foresee any security impediments to the vote.
"I am not expecting anything bad this time," said Wesa.
Wesa plans to discuss the province's security needs for the next two weeks with Canadian officials at an upcoming meeting, he added.
Karzai's decision to respect the country's constitutional framework is also likely to come as a relief to Canadians working on Afghanistan's reconstruction efforts.
Civilian officials have acknowledged the need for legitimate leadership in order restore confidence in Afghanistan's fledgling government structures.
"You can see from the election, people for the most part don't have faith in their government," Jess Dutton, director of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, said in a recent interview.
"That's a cornerstone in developing the trust of the government and the linkages with the people. It is a big issue here in Kandahar."
Though few Canadian soldiers follow closely the intricacies of the political drama in Kabul, they are paying attention to the overall results of the election.
"I know there was fraud in the first round, but I hope that people will have the chance to be satisfied, because it could affect the insurgency," said Cpl. Francis Adam, a member of a Civilian Military Co-operation unit based at the PRT.
"The fraud didn't help governance," added Master Cpl. Jonathan Laflamme, who is also a member of Adam's unit.
"I hope that eventually people will have confidence in their government. That's what we're here working for."
Even though Karzai expressed his support for a runoff, it remains an open question whether the Nov. 7 vote will actually occur.
Reports suggest the U.S. is continuing to explore alternative scenarios, including a coalition government or a loya jirga, a traditional meeting of leaders aimed at forging a political consensus.
If the election does go ahead, Canadian Forces have the resources in place to provide a level of support similar to the first round of voting, in which they increased patrols in the run-up to election but allowed Afghan security forces to take the lead on election day.
- By Jonathan Montpetit in Kandahar city.