KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah quit an election run-off on Sunday after accusing the government of not meeting his demand for a fair vote, leaving doubts over the legitimacy of the next government.
A weakened Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai would also be a blow for U.S. President Barack Obama as he decides whether to send up to 40,000 more U.S. troops to fight a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
Karzai’s camp ruled out a coalition with Abdullah, dashing hopes that might have been a way out of the impasse.
Daoud Ali Najafi, chief electoral officer of the government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC), told Reuters Afghanistan’s constitution meant the November 7 run-off must go ahead despite Abdullah’s decision.
A spokesman for U.N. mission chief Kai Eide voiced doubt about the practicality of carrying on with the run-off vote.
“It’s difficult to see how there can be a run-off with only one candidate,” said U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique.
Abdullah’s withdrawal, and the IEC’s decision to push ahead with the process, presents the possibility of foreign countries now being asked to put more troops at risk to secure an election in which the winner is already known.
Foreign troop deaths have hit record levels this year but the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan would not comment on the dangers of such an exercise.
“We continue to support the Afghan election process. We are not a political entity, we are here to safeguard the election,” ISAF spokesman Colonel William Shanks told Reuters.
Abdullah, an eye doctor and Karzai’s urbane former foreign minister, appeared to rule out any immediate chance of a power-sharing deal with Karzai in return for withdrawing, but also told his supporters not to boycott the run-off.
His voice faltering and his eyes welling with tears, Abdullah told hundreds of supporters, including white-bearded tribal elders, in a giant tent used for grand assemblies that he had reached the decision “in the interests of the nation”.
“As far as I’m concerned, the decision I have reached is not to participate,” he later told reporters. “I have strong, strong reservations about the credibility of the process.”
Karzai had been favorite to win the run-off after getting more votes in an August 20 first round marred by widespread fraud. His campaign team also said the run-off would go ahead.
“Dr Abdullah’s decision has disappointed us,” Karzai said in a statement, adding his team would accept whatever rulings are made by the IEC and legal authorities such as the Supreme Court.
Afghanistan has been racked by weeks of political uncertainty, with security also a major concern after the Taliban vowed to disrupt the run-off. The Islamist militants made a similar threat in August but failed to disrupt the vote entirely.
The Taliban said Abdullah’s withdrawal made no difference.
“There will be no change of policy as far as we are concerned,” Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Some analysts were scathing in their assessment of what was seen as a flawed election staged against the backdrop of increasing violence after eight years of war.
“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.
A strong and legitimate Afghan government is central to the U.S. strategy to quell rising Taliban violence. Obama had already delayed the strategy decision on sending extra troops to await the election result.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was up to Afghan officials to decide the next step in the election process.
“It is now a matter for the Afghan authorities to decide on a way ahead that brings this electoral process to a conclusion in line with the Afghan constitution,” Clinton said in an e-mailed statement while she was traveling in Morocco. “We will support the next president and the people of Afghanistan, who seek and deserve a better future.”
Karzai and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke by telephone later on Sunday. Brown told the BBC that Karzai, seen by many in the West as a weak leader at the head of a government riddled with corruption, wanted to issue a “unity manifesto”.
“And what we’ve talked about is how he must first of all show people that he’s tackling corruption and he’s getting the right people into government,” Brown said.
He said Karzai must also build up Afghanistan’s security forces and step up economic improvement efforts.
Abdullah said he quit because demands he had sought from the government and the IEC, including the sacking of Afghanistan’s top election official, had not been met.
Abdullah left the door open for future discussions but said no deals had been struck in return for his withdrawal, seen by diplomats as one way to spare the country more uncertainty that discredits the government and can only aid the insurgency.
“This decision has not been made in return for anything or for anybody,” Abdullah said.
The run-off was triggered when a U.N.-led investigation found widespread fraud, mainly in favor of Karzai, had been committed during the first round.
Additional reporting by Sandra Maler, Sue Pleming and Ross Colvin in WASHINGTON; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Richard Williams