KABUL, Afghanistan — Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said Sunday he will not participate in next Saturday's runoff election -- a decision that effectively hands President Hamid Karzai an automatic second term, but without the legitimacy the United States and other western nations hoped to achieve through the second round of voting. Western diplomats had pressed Abdullah to stay in the race against Karzai. But Abdullah said he decided to drop out after he was unable to persuade Karzai in a meeting Wednesday to accept proposals to limit voter fraud.
"My decision is final," Abdullah said. "I will not participate in the Nov. 7 election' " The runoff was triggered by an audit that stripped hundreds of thousands of questionable votes from Karzai's initial tally, pushing him below the 50 percent-plus one threshold he needed for victory during the first round of voting Aug. 20. Western nations had hoped the second round would result in a cleaner vote and a credible partner in the war against the Taliban-led insurgency.
Abdullah made his announcement before hundreds of supporters from around the country in a huge tent in northwest Kabul. It was the latest turn in a tumultuous election season that has coincided with one of the deadliest periods of the war for U.S. troops.
Even before the announcement, The White House played down the impact of Abdullah's withdrawal and indicated it was prepared to work with a new government headed by Karzai. Abdullah's withdrawal "would in no way affect the credibility of the process, or the legitimacy of the Afghan government, " a senior White House official told McClatchy Saturday. The official would not be identified.
"The system is working. The Afghans held a first round election. Fraudulent ballots were investigated and thrown out. A runoff is scheduled in line with Afghan laws," the aide said, adding that the U.S. "does not support any particular candidate. We support a credible process, and that's exactly what we have seen."
Abdullah has repeatedly said that a Karzai government that comes to power through fraud will be a rotten foundation for the West to build upon.
"We will have a vacuum of power, security and stability," Abdullah told McClatchy. "Five years of illegitimate rule cannot be sustained by more troops or resources."
The action is likely to be seized on by Taliban insurgents as proof of the illegitimacy of the Karzai government, which already has severely weakened by reports of serious corruption.
One question that remains is how Karzai will claim a second term in office. Will the runoff go forward so he can claim that victory, or might it be scrapped due to Abdullah's decision to opt out?
Afghan election officials said in recent days the constitution appears to require that the runoff to go forward regardless of Abdullah's participation. But the tone changed after Abdullah's withdrawal announcement. Azizullah Ludin, chair of the Independent Election Commission, called a meeting Monday with lawyers to review the question.
"We have already taken all the preparations. The ballots and equipments have been sent out," Ludin said. "We will see (at the meeting) what kind of options there are."
Karzai's campaign, in a statement Sunday afternoon, said Abdullah's decision to pull out was a source of sorrow, and that the president would accept whatever decisions were made by the election commission or other legal institutions about the runoff.
The election will cost more than $20 million largely provided by western nations, which also are giving technical support and deploying security forces to assist in a massive effort to try to protect more than 6,300 polling places from attacks from the Taliban-led insurgency.
Many western officials in Kabul think the election should be canceled now that Abudllah won't participate. A key to setting that process in motion would be for Abdullah to submit a formal letter of withdrawal to the election commission.
But Abdullah has been bitterly at odds with the commission, which he accused of favoring Karzai. One of his key demands to participate in the election was for the chairman, Ludin, to step down. On Sunday, Abdullah told reporters that he had broken off all communications with the commission and did not plan to submit a letter withdrawing from the election.
Western diplomats are expected to continue to meet with Abdullah in the days ahead.
"The next step must be to bring this electoral process to a conclusion in a legal and timely manner," said Kai Eide, who heads the United Nations mission here in Afghanistan.
"As we wait for the Independent Election Commission to announce the next steps, the United States remains committed to supporting the Afghan people in carrying out a constitutional electoral process," the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a statement.