KABUL, Afghanistan--Unless President Hamid Karzai agrees to urgent steps to combat fraud, challenger Abdullah Abdullah will not participate in the Nov. 7 presidential runoff, senior aides to Abdullah said Saturday.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister in Karzai's government, was negotiating with him Saturday, and plans to announce his decision Sunday, Abdullah aides said.
"He definitely won't participate if this doesn't happen," said the Abdullah campaign official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Abdullah seeks the removal of the chairman of the Afghan Independent Election Commission as well as three cabinet ministers. He accused all four of using their government positions to help Karzai win the Aug. 20 first round that was marred by massive vote rigging.
Abdullah's complaint took on added force last week when the election commission, many of whose members were appointed by Karzai, opted to keep open hundreds of polling places where widespread fraud had been documented in the first round.
Abdullah's withdrawal would be a big setback for the United States and other western nations, which had hoped that the runoff could produce a legitimate leader after a first round darkened by widespread voter fraud and insurgent violence.
A second Abdullah campaign official said the decision to opt out, unless there are immediate election reforms, was taken earlier in the week. Abdullah has called a meeting for Sunday morning with hundreds of his supporters to announce his decision.
Some western officials expect Abdullah will decide to opt out and said the major question is how Abdullah will frame his decision.
A gracious statement of withdrawal could set the stage for some healing of the political wounds that have festered in the aftermath of the Aug. 20 election. But rather than concede, Abdullah could simply boycott the election and lash out at Karzai for failing to curb fraud.
Also up in the air is whether the runoff will still go ahead.
Western officials say it would be foolish to move forward with a meaningless election that would require voters and Afghan and U.S. forces to risk their lives. They believe some way could be found to call off the elections should Abdullah make a clean exit from the race.
But the Election Commission has a different take.
Even without Abdullah's participation, the second round election will take place next Saturday, Daoud Ali Najfi, a commission official, told McClatchy. "The time for a withdrawal has ended. According to the law, Abdullah must participate, and the votes he gets will be counted," he said.
The United Nations estimates the second round elections will cost more than $20 million and will require extensive military preparations to try to secure polling places. It would be a frustrating prospect to go to an enormous effort for an election discredited by the challenger's withdrawal.
Abdullah has stated that the second round election will be vulnerable to fraud. In a press conference last week, he called for the resignation of the chairman of the Afghan Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Ludin.
President Hamid Karzai rejected Abdullah's demands, and a Karzai campaign aide maintained that the president does not have the legal power to dismiss Ludin.
"Negotiations are going on but without result," said Moen Marastyal, who serves on the Karzai campaign team. "We are going for the election and will not accept his withdrawal or boycott."
On Thursday, the election commission announced that ballots had been delivered to many of the more than 6,300 polling stations that would be open for the runoff.
Responding to one of Abdullah's demands, the commission also accredited another 20,000 Abdullah campaign observers to help monitor polling sites.
Earlier this month, western diplomats and Sen. John Kerry (D-Ma.) put intense pressure on Karzai to accept the runoff following an audit that deducted hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes from the incumbent's initial tally. After Karzai accepted Oct. 20, the U.N., which provides technical support, began whirlwind efforts to prepare for the elections.
Abdullah had informed U.S. diplomats that he is open to a deal in which Karzai would carry out government reforms and invite some of his supporters into the government in return for Abdullah's withdrawal from the race. Karzai has rejected any such proposal.
The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the election, and on Wednesday insurgents assaulted a guesthouse full of UN workers, killing five and injuring nine.
If Abudullah pulls out of the election, the Taliban could claim a propaganda victory.
There are also concerns that Abdullah could trigger tension in the country between Abdullah's core support, from ethnic Tajiks in the north, and Pashtuns who have rallied around Karzai.
"If the (Abdullah) supporters hold demonstrations, it makes the situation worse," said Babrak Shenwari, a Pahstun parliamentarian from the eastern province of Nangahar.
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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