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Afghan Elections

A Complex Electorate Casts Its Ballots

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Abdullah withdraws from Afghan runoff election

Abdullah (Majid Saeedi - Getty Images)
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A senior Obama administration official said Sunday that Abdullah's tone was "constructive" and "moderate."

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"Afghans still have to finalize this election, and that is work that will take place in the coming days," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic issue. "But this does provide an opportunity to begin a shift to a new phase in Afghanistan. People are beginning to think not only of the election, but also of what comes next."

Despite the upbeat diplomatic language, the dramatic turn of events seemed likely to create added difficulties for the Obama administration, which has been deliberating for weeks over whether to make a deeper commitment to the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. U.S. officials had pressed Karzai to accept the runoff, hoping the election would produce a reliable new political and military ally in Kabul.

Abdullah said that his decision to withdraw is "final," and that he had recently made it after Karzai refused to meet several conditions to ensure the poll would be fair. Abdullah had asked the president to fire the head of the electoral commission, Azizullah Lodin, on grounds that he is politically beholden to Karzai, and to suspend several cabinet ministers.

"The decision I have made was not easy. I made it not only for those who voted for me, but for everyone in Afghanistan," Abdullah said in a rambling but solemn speech that was interrupted by cheers. He said that all Afghans "have the right" to participate in free and fair elections, but that many had encountered fraud in the Aug. 20 poll. He also said some had been threatened with having their houses burned down if they voted for him on Nov. 7.

At a news conference later Sunday, Abdullah described a private meeting he had with Karzai Wednesday at the behest of Eide. He said it had offered a "critical chance" to resolve the impasse but had failed to do so. "Unfortunately, the meeting was inconclusive, to say the least," Abdullah added.

He asserted that he had not withdrawn from the race "in exchange for anything from anybody," but also said he would "leave the door open" for discussions with Karzai. Abdullah called his decision to quit "tough" and "painful," but said he hopes it will help strengthen Afghan democracy in the long run. He said several times he had purposely not used the word "boycott," which would have signaled an angry rejection of the election process.

Some analysts suggested Abdullah was still angling for a political power-sharing deal. "We are now a force to be reckoned with," said Ahmed Wali Massoud, an adviser. "No future Afghan government can continue without taking into consideration our huge force, our ideas, and our platform."

For the moment, however, Abdullah's unilateral withdrawal did little to resolve a political crisis that has been building since August, when the presidential poll was marred by widespread fraud. Karzai's victory was later declared invalid, and U.S. and European officials pressed the president to accept a runoff.

Some observers said they feared Abdullah's move would spark political violence, but he said he had called on supporters "not to take to the streets, not to feel aggrieved."

Numerous supporters of Abdullah, who gathered from across the country to hear him speak in a large tent built for mass political meetings, said they agreed with his decision to withdraw. Many said that there had been serious fraud in their districts in the Aug. 20 election, and that the country needs a fair poll in order to install a new government.

"The election was full of fraud and threats, and it left the people with a lot of doubt in their hearts," said Maulvi Dar Gul, a cleric from Paktia province. "We need to remove that doubt, because now everything in the country is stuck."

Hajji Abdul Shukur, a turbaned businessman from Badghis province in western Afghanistan, said he and his friends had flown to Kabul for the gathering because "the future of our country is at stake." He said the election commission was planning to close polling stations in his area where voters favored Abdullah. "We need to boycott the election and set up an interim government," he said.

Several people in the tent warned that violence could still erupt if the election issue is not settled properly, but they also said they disapprove of such tactics.

"It is our hope that Dr. Abdullah will become president, but we don't want a second round because we know there will be a lot of fraud again," said Abdul Mahmad, a tribal leader from Kunduz province in the north. "If Karzai becomes president through fraud, there will be a revolution, but we Afghans have suffered and we do not want a revolution. We want peace and democracy and law."

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