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Afghanistan challenger may pull out of election

An Abdullah aide says the candidate won't participate in the runoff unless his demands on voting and other conditions are met.

November 01, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — With a week to go before a scheduled runoff election, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's challenger called a gathering of top supporters for today at which aides said he was likely to pull out.

The threat of a withdrawal by former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah threw into disarray a vote that U.S. officials had hoped would produce a credible partner in Kabul. President Obama is deliberating over proposals to send thousands more U.S. troops, and having an Afghan government that voters accept is an important element in Washington's strategy to combat the Taliban and other insurgents.

The Afghan Constitution and electoral law are not clear about what would happen if Abdullah withdrew. But if Karzai was declared the winner without a vote, or the election proceeded with only one candidate, the incumbent would end up at the head of a weak government with questionable legitimacy.

Abdullah had given Karzai until Saturday to meet conditions he said were necessary to avoid the rampant fraud that marred the first round of voting in August. They included removing the head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission along with two deputies and suspending three Cabinet ministers.

United Nations-backed auditors threw out more than 1 million votes cast Aug. 20, most of them for Karzai. That left Karzai just short of the 50% threshold required for an outright win, forcing him into a runoff against Abdullah, his main challenger.

A senior member of Abdullah's campaign said Saturday that the candidate would not participate in the Nov. 7 runoff unless his demands for a fair vote were met. He requested anonymity because Abdullah had not yet announced his plans.

"The [election] apparatus is the same as in the last election, so the fraud is going to be the same," the official said. But he added that talks between the two sides were continuing, and that a last-minute deal could still be reached.

Moin Marastyal, a legislator and advisor to Karzai's campaign, accused Abdullah of trying to win a power-sharing deal without going through with a vote he knew he would lose.

"I think it was a smart move" by Abdullah, said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based analyst and director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies. "Abdullah wants to reach a compromise but he wants to negotiate from a position of strength."

The election panel said Wednesday that it had agreed to one of Abdullah's demands, to accredit 20,000 members of his campaign to monitor the vote.

But panel officials said only the courts have the authority to remove their members. And Karzai's aides argued that the president could not suspend his ministers without evidence that they misused government resources to campaign for the president.

If Abdullah withdrew now, Marastyal said, Karzai would automatically be the winner.

But Noor Mohammed Noor, spokesman for the election commission, said it was too late for Abdullah to pull out.

"The ballot papers are already printed and have been sent to the 34 provinces," he said. Abdullah could also announce a boycott and ask his supporters not to go to the polls next week, something Karzai's camp insists he has no right to do.

Another option would be a new contest between Karzai and the candidate who finished third in the August vote, Ramazan Bashardost. But there would be no time to organize that before winter, pushing the vote into spring.

Karzai agreed to a runoff only after weeks of intense pressure from U.S. and other officials.

Support for the war is already low in the U.S., and a discredited election would further complicate a decision on a request from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for a reported 40,000 additional troops. After weeks of deliberation, the Obama administration is reaching consensus on continuing McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy, which includes protecting civilians, promoting development to increase support for the Afghan government and building up Afghan security forces.

There are fears that a marred runoff would further damage Afghans' faith in democracy.

"These threats to boycott or withdraw don't help democracy in any way, and will further push people to lose confidence in democracy," said Hussain Yasa, chairman of a publishing house that produces two independent newspapers.

Considering the massive security effort required to protect polling places, some Western officials questioned whether it was worth proceeding with an election whose outcome was already known.

Western diplomats held out hope Saturday that Abdullah would bow out gracefully and urge his supporters to accept Karzai as president. But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said a runoff with one candidate would not necessarily hurt the legitimacy of the process.

"We see that happen in our own country where, for whatever combination of reasons, one of the candidates decides not to go forward," Clinton told reporters in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. "I don't think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election."

The Taliban insurgency has threatened to attack the election and those who support it. On Saturday, Western military officials announced the death of a Canadian soldier killed in a bombing Friday in the south.

On Wednesday, gunmen armed with suicide vests and grenades stormed a Kabul guesthouse frequented by U.N. election workers, killing eight people, including five U.N. employees.

The head of Afghanistan's national intelligence service, Amrullah Saleh, said six people had been arrested in connection with the attack. The three suicide bombers were from Pakistan, he said.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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