Status of Afghan runoff unclear as Karzai's chief rival withdraws

Abdullah says he fears more election fraud, but warns supporters against violence

Abdullah (Majid Saeedi - Getty Images)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 2, 2009

KABUL -- The top challenger to Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Sunday that he will not take part in a runoff election scheduled for Saturday because he did not think the vote would be fair, but diplomatic gestures by both camps suggested the move would not trigger a new political crisis in the tense and war-torn country.

It was not clear whether the government would press ahead with plans for the election. Karzai, who had been heavily favored heading into the vote, told a radio station late Sunday that the runoff should be held but that he would defer to the national election commission. That panel, in turn, said it would consult a group of constitutional lawyers on Monday before deciding.

No matter how a new government is formed, analysts said the withdrawal by candidate Abdullah Abdullah will inevitably lead to Karzai's de facto victory. But without a clear electoral mandate, they said, Karzai would begin his new term with lingering doubts about his credibility and reliability as a partner in the U.S.-led battle against Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents.

Abdullah, speaking at a mid-morning gathering of several thousand supporters, stopped short of calling for an electoral boycott. He made it clear he did not want to provoke a confrontation with Karzai or risk partisan violence, even though he feared the runoff would bring a repeat of the fraud that marred the first presidential poll in August.

But Abdullah, a former foreign minister and eye doctor, refused to say what he expects his partisans to do if the vote is held. At a news conference, he repeatedly declined to predict or suggest what should happen now, stressing that his only decision was "not to participate" in the runoff.

Some analysts and U.N. officials questioned the wisdom of holding an election with only one candidate, especially amid fears that security forces will not be able to protect voters and election workers from Taliban attacks.

Karzai's campaign officials said they would respect "whatever decision is made" by the election commission and other legal agencies. They refrained from criticizing Abdullah and said they hope to "complete the election process with national unity." One campaign aide said Karzai had instructed his team to treat Abdullah with extra respect.

If the runoff election goes ahead, Abdullah's name will remain on the ballot, but any votes for him will be nullified because he has taken himself out of

the running. Karzai presumably would win by default and take office for another five-year term.

Analysts noted that both Afghan and international officials here took pains to avoid divisive rhetoric in reacting to Abdullah's decision, implying there might still be a chance for reconciliation. Foreign diplomats and agencies portrayed his actions as reasonable.

The head of the U.N. mission here, Norwegian Kai Eide, said that Abdullah had acted in a "dignified and statesmanlike way" during his campaign but that it is important to "bring this electoral process to a conclusion in a legal and timely manner."

The U.S. Embassy, in a similarly worded statement, said that Abdullah had "emphasized a commitment to serving the nation," and that U.S. officials "fully endorse his emphasis on national unity." It said the U.S. government would wait for the election panel's decision and "looks forward to working with the next Afghan administration."

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