KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s election rival Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from a run-off vote on Sunday but, with Afghanistan mired in political uncertainty, the disputed process is not over.
The following examines what Abdullah’s pullout means for Afghanistan and what might happen next.
WILL THE RUN-OFF STILL BE HELD?
Karzai’s campaign team says yes.
Afghanistan’s constitution is vague about the consequences of a candidate withdrawing from a run-off. The government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC), blamed by Abdullah for the failings of August’s fraud-marred first round, has also said a run-off would go ahead with just one candidate.
Karzai has said he will not automatically declare himself president for another five years and will wait for Afghanistan’s Supreme Court to make a final decision.
Political analysts and some Western diplomats say Karzai’s legitimacy would be severely undermined, as would the West’s insistence that a true democracy take hold in Afghanistan after eight years of war.
Analysts say such a process would be flawed because only Karzai’s supporters could be expected to vote.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton however has disagreed, saying on Saturday such a move is not unprecedented and that it was a personal decision for Abdullah to make.
Other analysts say that to tacitly accept Karzai as the winner by allowing the run-off to go ahead with one candidate would undermine all efforts to ensure a fair contest.
The run-off is now seen as nothing more than a constitutional formality and Karzai will have to fight off perceptions over the next five years that he did not win fairly.
Washington has been waiting for some kind of solution to the political stalemate before U.S. President Barack Obama decides whether to send up to 40,000 more troops to fight the Taliban.
A one-candidate run-off however will make it difficult for Obama and his military commanders to convince U.S. lawmakers and the American public to deploy more troops and spend more money to support a government whose legitimacy is under a cloud.
The protracted and messy nature of the election could also have a demoralizing effect on foreign troops, with military casualties reaching record levels this year.
Obama will have to accompany any troop upgrade with a clear and strong reform message to Karzai, who is seen in some quarters as a weak leader in charge of a government riddled with graft.
Future talks with Karzai have not been ruled out and Abdullah could end up with a senior post because he campaigned strongly in the first round and raised his profile at home and abroad.
Some Western diplomats see Abdullah’s inclusion as key to improving the tattered reputation of Karzai’s government, but others have hinted that Karzai is reluctant to share power.
Some analysts were scathing in their reaction when it became apparent Abdullah would not take part in the run-off.
“It is a shocking failure of efforts by the West and other international communities to build a democracy in Afghanistan,” said Norine MacDonald, president of policy research group The International Council on Security and Development.
“The election should be postponed and reorganized in a manner that would yield a legitimate government and allow the Afghan people to participate effectively in a legitimate election.” The United States, and other countries with troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, have a major stake in seeing a legitimate and credible government in power to make their sacrifices and expenditures worthwhile.
The Taliban, who vowed to disrupt the election, will likely claim that Abdullah’s pullout is proof the West has failed to bring democracy to Afghanistan.
The insurgency is already stronger than it has been since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. As the crisis drags on, the austere Islamist group may again feel empowered politically.
With his legitimacy in question, Karzai will also find himself in a weaker position when it comes to negotiating with “moderate” elements of the Taliban.
Confusion and disarray in Kabul also weakens the government’s grip in southern and eastern areas where the Taliban are strong.
Editing by Paul Tait and Dean Yates