Afghan challenger considers runoff boycott

Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan foreign minister who challenged President Hamid Karzai, speaks to his leading supporters in Kabul.
Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan foreign minister who challenged President Hamid Karzai, speaks to his leading supporters in Kabul. (Farzana Wahidy/associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Joshua Partlow and Pamela Constable
Monday, October 26, 2009

KABUL -- The challenger to President Hamid Karzai is considering boycotting the upcoming runoff if his demands are not met to remove the leaders of Afghanistan's election commission who he believes are biased against him, campaign officials said Sunday.

Despite his public promises that he will participate in the Nov. 7 runoff, Abdullah Abdullah has been discussing the possibility of pulling out, an outcome that could create a new political crisis and throw the legitimacy of any new government into question. His aides argue that it would be dangerous to enter an election that might reproduce the massive fraud that discredited the vote in August.

Abdullah's main running mate, Homayoun Shah Assefy, said that it was clear that the United States and the international community would resist such a boycott but that it might be necessary if the Independent Election Commission is not purged of its prominent Karzai supporters.

"Lots of our international friends won't be happy. We will have them on our backs," Assefy said in an interview. "But for the interest of our country, is a rigged and controversial election better than boycotting the election? I think the second."

Abdullah told Fox News on Sunday, "I'm not talking about boycott at this stage, though my supporters are pressing on that point." Abdullah said that if his conditions are not met, there will not be a credible election "and it will be very difficult to convince the people to turn out and to show up."

Abdullah has not made his final decision, his aides said, and the tactics in this political duel seem to be shifting daily, if not hourly. This penchant for brinkmanship by both candidates is exasperating Western diplomats searching for some legitimate resolution that will yield a credible Afghan partner. Karzai, who claimed that he won the first round with a majority, submitted to a runoff only after intense pressure by Western diplomats forced him to abide by the constitution. Assefy said the first round made clear that neither candidate can "run this country alone" and that if Karzai is willing to "accept some idea of reform," a coalition government is possible.

"I think what you're seeing here is Abdullah sees the writing on the wall, that he's likely to lose a runoff. Now is the time for him to strike a deal if there is any chance of one," said one U.N. official in Kabul. "From the Karzai campaign, we're seeing a hardening of their position and a determination to proceed to a runoff, whatever the implications of that may be."

Aides to Karzai said Sunday that they were extremely concerned about the reports that Abdullah might drop out of the race. The aides said that Abdullah is now threatening to boycott unless the government removes the three members of the election commission and negotiates a pre-election deal for a coalition government.

"If he withdraws, it will deepen the political crisis and deepen the lack of legitimacy for both him and the government," Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said in an interview Sunday. "We cannot reverse the process that has been started to restore legitimacy to the election process. If we don't have a real election, it will not be good for Afghanistan."

Abdullah plans to hold a news conference Monday to announce his views on the runoff, aides said. Abdullah met with U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry on Sunday. Eikenberry "did not encourage or discourage Dr. Abdullah from running," one U.S. official said. "That is Abdullah's choice."

"The United States continues to support election preparations and encourage all parties to work towards a legitimate outcome," the official said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company