RELATED STORY:Analysis: Canceled runoff leaves U.S. no worse off – but no better

KABUL — Afghanistan’s election commission on Monday declared President Hamid Karzai the winner of tainted presidential elections and canceled a runoff after his main rival withdrew from the race.

The announcement ended months of uncertainty in the war-torn country following Aug. 20 presidential elections that were called into question over reports of widespread vote-rigging and fraud.

But it also raised questions about the legitimacy of a president who had been forced into a runoff after hundreds of thousands of votes in his favor were declared invalid and who would enter a second term in office without a full majority of the vote.

Rival candidate Abdullah Abdullah withdrew on Sunday, saying he was convinced that the same problems that marred the first round of voting would prevent fair elections on Nov. 7.

Azzizullah Lodin, chairman of the Independent Elections Commission, said at a news conference that the commission determined that with only one candidate remaining, the Afghan constitution did not require a second round of voting.

“According to the constitution of Afghanistan, if in the first round, nobody gets 50 percent, the elections should go to a second round,” Lodin told reporters. “The second round ... should be conducted between two candidates. If only one is willing to participate, the elections should be decided by the Independent Elections Commission.”

Lodin said the commission also took into account the threat of violence that surrounded the vote. Taliban insurgents launched a number of bombings and attacks ahead of the Aug. 20 vote, and claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a United Nations compound last week that left eight civilians and three attackers dead.

Abdullah had wanted the elections commission, which counted the ballots, and several cabinet ministers replaced ahead of the runoff because he said they were heavily biased in favor of Karzai.

Asked whether they were concerned about how their decision declaring Karzai winner might be perceived, commission members insisted that they acted in good faith.

“I am not satisfied by the way the elections were received by the Afghan people,” said election commission member Zekria Barekzai. “The system is not flawed, but the implementation of elections in the middle of a war is a huge challenge.”

International leaders responded almost immediately with congratulatory messages that hinted at relief.

In recent months U.S. and coalition forces have been battling an intensifying insurgency and the violent toll on soldier’s lives had withered public support for the war in the United States. President Obama has delayed a decision on whether to answer the request of his top general in Afghanistan for tens of thousands of more troops until the political situation in Kabul was resolved.

U.S. leaders had shunned Karzai in recent months for being corrupt and pressured the Afghan leader to accept the runoff when evidence of massive voter fraud became clear.

But U.S. and United Nations leaders appeared to rally around Karzai following Abdullah’s announcement, and called for time for Karzai to strengthen the rule of law.

“We congratulate President Karzai on his victory in this historic election and look forward to working with him, his new Administration, the Afghan people and our partners in the international community to support Afghanistan’s progress towards institutional reforms, security and prosperity,” said a statement from the U.S. embassy in Kabul. “We also congratulate Dr. Abdullah and all the other candidates for their efforts to strengthen Afghanistan’s democratic future.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew to Kabul Monday in the wake of the attack last week on the U.N. compound and met with both candidates following Abdullah’s withdrawal. He said he came to show his solidarity with both U.N. staff and the Afghan people and vowed that U.N. efforts in Afghanistan would not be deterred.

He also issued a statement welcoming the IEC’s decision to forego a runoff and congratulated Karzai.

“This has been a difficult election process for Afghanistan and lessons must be learned,” Ban said. “Afghanistan now faces significant challenges and the new President must move swiftly to form a Government that is able to command the support of both the Afghan people and the international community.”

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