KABUL The Afghan president's brother is preparing to withdraw from the presidential elections according to a rival candidate, former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul, who said late on Tuesday the two were planning an alliance and would join forces soon.
"We are in discussions about how we can join together, we have not reached yet a final result, but it is on the way," Rassoul said in an interview on the sidelines of a debate.
"Our negotiation is not finalized ... but you will know very soon."
With just one month to go until the vote on April 5, just three candidates appeared for Tuesday's televised debate on foreign policy, broadcast by Afghanistan's most popular channel.
The incumbent's brother, Qayum Karzai, widely seen as one of the front-runners, unexpectedly failed to show, fueling speculation that behind closed doors a fresh round of furious horse trading is setting the stage for the vote.
Rassoul and Karzai both belong to the same majority Pashtun ethnic group as the president, and an alliance between leading Pashtun candidates has been the focus of heated speculation in the capital as the election approaches.
If all goes according to plan, the vote will mark the country's first democratic transfer of power. The incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.
The main opposition candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, who dropped out of a runoff against Karzai in the 2009 election, citing concerns about fraud, said he was not concerned about rivals joining forces. His base of support is in the Tajik community, mostly scattered across the north of the country.
"I also hear that there are negotiations between the candidates. ... I am not concerned at all," Abdullah said on the sidelines of the debate.
"I think the more they get together, the happier I will be; it will be a more clear-cut campaign."
American-style TV debates are something of a novelty in Afghanistan, where much of the country still has limited access to electricity and more than a third live below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank.
But in major cities like the capital Kabul, members of a more affluent class of Afghans say the debates are useful.
"I usually watch these debates. I like to know who has practical plans for the future of Afghanistan," said Saleh Mohammad, a 23-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul.
He was skeptical, though, of promises aired on television.
"Most of their future plans are not based on the current situation, they are ... presenting false or impractical plans."
To others in more remote areas, the debates are less of a concern.
"Where I live, there is no TV or radio to watch or listen to them," said Haji Janan, a farmer in southern Kandahar province.
Janan said insecurity prevented campaigners from reaching his district and he only saw pictures of the candidates in Kandahar city.
A fifth favorite to win was also absent, but the former Islamist warlord Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf has previously made a point of shunning TV debates in favor of campaign rallies.
The white-bearded and famously skilled orator presents himself as a bridge between warring factions, but his conservative views alarm women fearful of a rollback of hard-won rights.
Additionally, his reputation for having invited Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda to Afghanistan makes him a particularly unpopular choice in the West.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul and Ismail Sameem in Kandahar; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)