KABUL, (Reuters) – Afghan presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah quit an election run-off on Sunday after accusing the government of not meeting his demand for a fair vote, leaving doubts over the legitimacy of the next government.
A weakened Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai would also be a blow for U.S. President Barack Obama as he decides whether to send up to 40,000 more U.S. troops to fight a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
Karzai’s spokesman also ruled out a coalition with Abdullah, dashing hopes that it might have been a way out of the impasse.
Election officials said the Nov. 7 vote would go ahead with both names on the ballot but with Karzai the only candidate. “Based on election laws and based on the constitution there should be a second round. The constitution is clear,” Daoud Ali Najafi, chief electoral officer of the government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC), told Reuters. But a spokesman for U.N. mission chief Kai Eide voiced doubt about the practicality of carrying on with the election.
“It’s difficult to see how there can be a run-off with only one candidate,” said spokesman Aleem Siddique.
Abdullah, an eye doctor and Karzai’s urbane former foreign minister, appeared to rule out any immediate chance of a power-sharing deal with Karzai in return for withdrawing, but also told his supporters not to boycott the run-off. His voice faltering and his eyes welling with tears, Abdullah told hundreds of supporters, including white-bearded tribal elders, in a giant tent used for grand assemblies that he had reached the decision “in the interests of the nation”.
“As far as I’m concerned, the decision I have reached is not to participate,” he later told reporters. “I have strong, strong reservations about the credibility of the process.”
Karzai had been favourite to win the run-off after getting more votes in an Aug. 20 first round marred by widespread fraud. His campaign team also said the run-off would go ahead. “Dr Abdullah’s decision has disappointed us,” Karzai said in a statement from the presidential palace which added his team would accept whatever ruling the IEC made.
Asked later if a power-sharing deal with Abdullah was possible, Karzai’s campaign spokesman Wahid Omar said: “If it means a coalition government, certainly not.”
Afghanistan has been racked by weeks of political uncertainty, with security also a major concern after the Taliban vowed to disrupt the run-off.
The Taliban said Abdullah’s withdrawal made no difference. “There will be no change of policy as far as we are concerned,” Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Obama met his top military leaders on Friday as part of a strategic review. Some analysts were scathing in their assessment of what was seen as a flawed election staged against the backdrop of increasing violence after eight years of war. “It is a shocking failure of efforts by the West and other international communities to build a democracy in Afghanistan,” said Norine MacDonald, president of policy research group The International Council on Security and Development. “The election should be postponed and reorganised in a manner that would yield a legitimate government and allow the Afghan people to participate effectively in a legitimate election.”
A strong and legitimate Afghan government is central to the U.S. strategy to quell rising Taliban violence. Obama has already delayed the decision on the strategy and on sending extra troops to await the election result. A spokesperson for the White House could not immediately be reached for comment on Abdullah’s decision, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday a decision by Abdullah to pull out would not affect the vote’s legitimacy.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Abdullah’s decision was carefully considered and that he looked forward to working with an inclusive government. “I am confident that Afghanistan’s leaders will support the remaining steps of the democratic process,” Brown said in a statement.
Abdullah said he quit because demands he had sought from the government and the IEC, including the sacking of Afghanistan’s top election official, had not been met. He said there would be no demonstrations and urged his supporters “not to take to the streets, not to feel grief”. Western diplomats said that talks between Karzai and Abdullah last week on ways to break the deadlock had foundered, but Abdullah later left the door open for future discussions.
A possible power-sharing deal had also been suggested but Abdullah said no such arrangements had been made. “This decision has not been made in return for anything or for anybody,” Abdullah said
Analysts and diplomats had seen such a deal, perhaps in return for a top post for Abdullah in Karzai’s next government, as a way to spare the country further political squabbling that discredits the government and can only aid the insurgency. The run-off was triggered when a U.N.-led investigation found widespread fraud, mainly in favour of Karzai, had been committed during the first round.