GWEN IFILL: The presidential election fight in Afghanistan came to a sudden end today. Election authorities canceled plans for a runoff and awarded President Hamid Karzai another term.
Margaret Warner is in Kabul and has our lead story.
MARGARET WARNER: It was the culmination of a weeks-long presidential campaign drama, when, late today, the chief of Afghanistan's election commission declared President Hamid Karzai the winner.
AZIZULLAH LODIN, chair, Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan: We declare that Mr. Hamid Karzai, who got the majority of votes in the first round and is the only candidate in the second round of elections for Afghanistan in 2009, we declare as elected president of Afghanistan.
MARGARET WARNER: The decision to cancel next Saturday's scheduled runoff came after a weekend of political brinkmanship. At stake was the final outcome of an August 20 election so marked by ballot box-stuffing and other fraud that more than one million of Karzai's votes had been thrown out, forcing a second round.
Today's abrupt cancellation was triggered by Karzai's runoff rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, he convened more than 1,000 of his supporters, and, with emotion choking his voice, withdrew.
MARGARET WARNER: Since Karzai hadn't agreed to any of the changes Abdullah had demanded, including the firing of top election officials he held responsible for the fraud, Abdullah said he saw no point risking more lives and spending more money on a second voting day.
Despite their disappointment, Abdullah supporters said it was the right decision.
MAWLAWI ABDULBAQI TURKISTANI, member, Islam Justice Party: The decision announced today means that nation won't go to the polls. Mr. Karzai, he will be alone. He's trying to have his rule over the people, but he's already an illegal president.
MARGARET WARNER: But others predicted some of Abdullah's supporters wouldn't react so calmly.
MUHAMMAD AKBAR, resident, Afghanistan: Whatever legal thing we can do, we won't stop. But, definitely, there will be violence from the normal people of Afghanistan.
MARGARET WARNER: A short time later, in the walled courtyard of his home, Abdullah called for calm, and specifically asked his supporters not to demonstrate.
DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: I did it with a lot of pain, but at the same time with a lot of hopes towards the future.
MARGARET WARNER: But Abdullah Abdullah vowed to stay involved in the nation's affairs. And he pointedly declined to say he thought a second-term Karzai was a credible partner for the U.S. and its allies.
DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: It's for the United States and international community based on the experience which they have had in the past few years to make that judgment. But there is no doubt that the international community, to make success, to -- to turn this story into a success, they do need a credible and reliable partner.
MARGARET WARNER: Abdullah denied making any last-minute deal with Karzai. But he said another player in the election drama, the Taliban, which waged attacks on voters and election workers alike, had influenced his choice.
DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: When I made that decision, though security was not the sole reason, that was a reason, yes, looking -- lives are involved in this, and -- and lives of not just the voters, but those who are providing security for us.
MARGARET WARNER: Last night, Scott Worden, whose U.N.-affiliated Electoral Complaints Commission rang the bell on the fraud in the first round, said there was no road map to determine the next step.
SCOTT WORDEN: The electoral law is not entirely clear on how to handle a withdrawal in the second round.
MARGARET WARNER: So, the constitution and the election laws, carefully written as they were, did not anticipate this?
SCOTT WORDEN: It did not. The IEC is responsible for writing regulations that determine all of the small details of the elections. There are no regulations that they have issued so far that would control exactly how to proceed under this circumstance.
MARGARET WARNER: At midday today, we caught up with the head of the Afghan Election Commission at the group's headquarters in Eastern Kabul.
Azizullah Lodin said his members were consulting international legal experts to decide what to do. He responded hotly to Abdullah's charges that he had acted with bias toward Karzai.
AZIZULLAH LODIN: They have to give proof of that. Without any proof, you know, he cannot say that. That is wrong.
MARGARET WARNER: But he did concede that no substantial changes had been made in the election process since the first round. It wasn't perfect, he said, but there was much to build on.
AZIZULLAH LODIN: This is a victory for Afghan people. In every election, there are some problems. You know, you have in the United States since 200 years of democracy, but you saw that in 2000 with Bush and Al Gore. What happened over there? And until we get this experience, it will take a long time, you know?
MARGARET WARNER: United Nations has been helping shepherd that learning process. And, today, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon made a surprise visit to Kabul. He met with both Karzai and Abdullah, and then told reporters he hoped the IEC would make a decision soon.
BAN KI-MOON, secretary-general: It is up to the Afghan government and particularly the Independent Election Commission to decide what kind of course of actions they will take.
MAN: We declare that Mr. Hamid Karzai...
MARGARET WARNER: Less than an hour later, we watched the IEC's decision come in live on Afghan's popular Tolo TV, with its owner, TV and radio baron Saad Mohseni. His station offered viewers wall-to-wall campaign coverage.
SAAD MOHSENI, owner, Tolo TV: It would have been a very controversial decision to go ahead with the second round, given the risks. And would people turn out to vote for one candidate? So, they probably did the wise thing, and a relief to all.
MARGARET WARNER: But Mohseni said the two months of doubt and the exposure of rampant fraud had left many Afghans disillusioned.
SAAD MOHSENI: The process itself, you know, in the eyes of most Afghans, has -- has been damaged. Footage of people stuffing ballot boxes, people filling out forms one after the other, it's -- it really shook up this country.
MARGARET WARNER: Mohseni hopes Karzai will now reach out to Abdullah and bring him into the fold. But whether, Karzai after eking out a victory amid so much bitterness, feels a need do so remains to be seen.
GWEN IFILL: In Washington this afternoon, President Obama said he telephoned Karzai to offer his congratulations.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Although the process was messy, I'm pleased to say that the final outcome was determined in accordance with Afghan law.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama said he also told the Afghan leader he now expects serious efforts to rein in corruption and govern the country effectively.
BARACK OBAMA: ... after some difficult years in which there's been some drift, that, in fact, he's going to move boldly and forcefully forward and take advantage of the international community's interest in his country to initiate reforms internally, that has to be one of our highest priorities.
He assured me that he understood the importance of this moment. But, as I indicated to him, the proof is not going to be in words; it's going to be in deeds.
GWEN IFILL: The president did not say when he would decide on sending more American troops. Instead, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs repeated, it will happen in the coming weeks.
Now back to Margaret Warner in Kabul. I spoke with her earlier.
Margaret Warner, it's good to see you.
It's been quite a dramatic weekend. How did the election fall apart, or was this collapse inevitable?
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Gwen, Abdullah Abdullah, ever since the second round had been declared two weeks ago, had insisted there had to be these changes, as I reported, in the election process, or else you would have the same situation ripe for fraud as occurred in the first round.
And I'm told that the final moment in his decision really came Saturday night, when he and Karzai met under the auspices of Kai Eide, the head of the U.N. mission here. And Abdullah once more made his case. You know, you have got to fire the head of this commission. We have got to close some of these polling stations where everyone is afraid to go.
And Karzai showed absolutely no interest. And, at that point, Abdullah recognized there was no way he was going to win. You would have a complete repeat of the first round. And a lot of lives would be at risk.
And, so, he, at that point, decided to take the -- quote -- "high road" and withdraw. So, it still remained up in the air in what manner he would withdraw, whether it would be graciously or with fighting words.
GWEN IFILL: Was it significant that Abdullah, even after dropping out and taking the high road, as you described it, that he would not endorse Karzai as legitimate?
MARGARET WARNER: Oh, yes.
I mean, on the one hand, he didn't call for a boycott, which some of his supporters had been busily telling reporters that that's what he would do, which would have been fighting words.
But, as we -- we tried over and over again at this press conference to get him to say that he supported President Karzai, he wished him well, he would help him govern, but he absolutely refused to. Now, that's read one of two ways. Either Abdullah does not want to in any way -- I mean, he wants Karzai to just have to govern on his own and perhaps fail on his own.
Or the other is that Abdullah still is hoping for some sort of a role. And by withholding endorsement and support, he still keeps alive that prospect.
The third prospect is, of course, that he could now turn around and challenge what the Election Commission, the IEC, did today. And one of his spokesmen, though he has a couple of them, told the wires tonight that he thought the decision had no legal basis, and that Abdullah would make clear his intentions tomorrow. So, to some degree, perhaps the drama continues.
GWEN IFILL: It sounds like, between these two men, there was never serious discussion about power-sharing, as had been discussed.
MARGARET WARNER: That is very hard to -- to pin down.
I tried all day to pin that down. Karzai's people say that, once it became clear Abdullah was number two, that these negotiations did begin, and that Abdullah wanted a slice of the pie, X-number of governorships, X- number of ministers. Abdullah's people say, no, he was looking for something more high minded; he wanted Karzai to agree to constitutional reform, the major one being to change Afghanistan's system to a parliamentary one, where political and ethnic minorities would at least have some role in government.
Right now, it's winner-take-all. Whoever wins the presidency, who is usually a member of the Pashtun group, gets to appoint, not only his own cabinet and the supreme court, but also the governors. So, it's totally winner-take-all.
That said, by the last few days, I'm told there were not serious power-sharing talks going on. It really was a discussion between them about whether to even change the election procedures.
As of 1:00 today, I'm told they still weren't having any discussion, though that was before the IEC decision. And Abdullah yesterday said -- in the press conference at one point, he said, well, we both live in this country, and, you know, in Afghanistan, we -- men can fight and then talk.
So, I think the door remains open if Karzai wants to walk through.
GWEN IFILL: And, so, what about the United Nations?
MARGARET WARNER: The U.N. publicly only spoke before the decision, as -- as I reported in my piece, urging the IEC to make it quickly, and saying they would support whomever -- or whatever the outcome was.
But, privately, they feel huge relief. As you will recall, five of their people were killed last night -- I mean last week in an assault on a guesthouse. The Taliban had vowed more election violence. And one U.N. official said to me, you know, we were always prepared to try to make a go of this second round, but for what, when we know that either it would be a round that it was just as tainted as the first, or, certainly, once Abdullah had withdrawn, to do that for a one-man race, the cost in lives and in money just couldn't be justified.
So, the U.N. is tremendously relieved, though they don't say so publicly.
GWEN IFILL: So, what does Karzai do now? Is there any clear path for him?
MARGARET WARNER: That is the -- I mean, nobody -- there are a couple of paths. I mean, one is, he could say, I won and I'm going forward, just the way I always did. The other is that he broadens his base.
And there are many even of his supporters that we have talked to who do recognize that his credibility was undermined, first of all, by the last three or four years, where corruption has gotten worse. His government is accused of not delivering basic services, the Taliban has gotten stronger, and then this massive fraud, which stunned just about everybody, and that the problems are so big that he has to take on, from the corruption, or to some of the warlords in his own coalition, that he can't possibly do it having won less than 50 percent of the vote, unless he broadens his base.
And Abdullah has emerged -- even though there are no real political parties here yet, Abdullah has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. One of his supporters at that meeting yesterday said, you know, we now have 100 seats in parliament.
So, it -- it just remains to be seen whether Karzai sees it that way, or whether he's now so bitter that he refuses to -- to reach out. The final unknown, also, is whether the U.S. will really push him to, and whether he would respond to that.
A person close to Karzai told me -- and -- and others have said this -- that Karzai again became very bitter about the international community, thought they really wanted him to lose. And, so, it's -- it's unclear whether he would now be responsive to the Obama administration saying, you know, one of the changes you have to make is broaden your base.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you, Margaret, joining us tonight from Kabul, Afghanistan.
MARGARET WARNER: Oh, my pleasure, Gwen.