KABUL (Reuters) - The two main opposition candidates in Afghanistan are in talks about uniting to defeat president Hamid Karzai in August’s election, one of them said on Sunday.
Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani told Reuters he had no plans to withdraw from the race himself, but was in talks with former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah about joining forces.
“Now it is essentially a tripartite race. And now we have to see how it will transform itself into a bipolar race,” he said in an interview at his Kabul villa after addressing a meeting of scores of tribal chiefs gathered from the country’s southeast.
“I’m not going to withdraw. But we are going to be discussing. I have the most respect for Dr Abdullah, and we are in discussions and we are going to be continuing our discussions.”
Forty-four candidates have registered for the August 20 vote. But several leading figures thought likely to challenge Karzai declined to register by the May 8 deadline, leaving Abdullah and Ghani as the highest-profile challengers.
Diplomats say the opposition has been hampered by its inability to settle on a single candidate with broad support.
But Ghani said the decisions by other high profile figures not to stand were a sign that the opposition was uniting.
“We have an invisible primary,” Ghani said. “There were a whole series of candidates six months ago. And the process of the invisible primary worked. People withdrew.”
He said he had received support from followers of former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and of Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, both of whom were tipped as prospective candidates but did not register by the deadline.
Ghani, a U.S.-educated anthropologist and former World Bank official, served under Karzai as finance minister from 2002-04. He now accuses Karzai of running an incompetent government of “patronage-based machines” that is tolerant of corruption.
“President Karzai is speaking an atavistic language. He speaks English in order to fool the world,” Ghani said.
When Karzai speaks of transparent government, “that’s my language that he borrowed from me because I wrote all his speeches,” he added.
He said the president had offered him opportunities to return to the government in the final two weeks of the candidate registration process, but he had declined.
Ghani said Western commentators had done Afghanistan a disservice by writing off the opposition’s chances against Karzai, who took office under an internationally brokered deal in 2001 and won the country’s first democratic election in 2004.
“I still stand a chance of winning, because the people of Afghanistan have always surprised. We are not a people who are going to take fraud, like that,” he said.
The international community needed to guarantee a fair vote, to prevent Afghans from turning in frustration to insurgents.
“Only the opposition candidates can make the election legitimate. And it has to be understood, crystal clear, if the mechanisms are not put in place to enable the people of Afghanistan to make a judgment in a relatively free and fair election, then we will not legitimate the results,” he said.
“An illegitimate government is going to be the worst thing that is going to happen to this country.”
Editing by John Chalmers