KABUL, Afghanistan-Challenger Abdullah Abdullah and Afghan President Hamid Karzai failed Saturday to agree on conditions for their Nov. 7 presidential runoff, setting the stage for Abdullah to drop out of the race, senior aides to Abdullah said.
Abdullah had demanded that Karzai take steps to avoid even greater fraud in votes for him in the runoff than in the discredited Aug. 20 first round, and threatened to withdraw unless they reached agreement, the aides said. Abdullah is now expected to announce his decision Sunday.
"He definitely won't participate if this (agreement) doesn't happen," said a top Abdullah campaign official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation.
As of midnight Saturday, Abdullah had not made a final decision on whether to withdraw from the race or boycott the election, the aide said. "Nothing is clear at this time," he told McClatchy.
Abdullah, who'd served as Karzai's foreign minister, had sought the removal of the chairman of the Afghan Independent Election Commission as well as three cabinet ministers. He charged that all four had used their positions to help Karzai win the Aug 20 first round that was marred by hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes.
Last week, as Abdullah raised his concerns about potential fraud, the election commission decided to keep open hundreds of polling places where widespread rigging had been documented during that first round and open even more.
Abdullah's withdrawal would be a 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.
Instead, the United States would have to partner for the next five years with Karzai, whose reputation has been diminished by widespread corruption within his administration and blatant ballot stuffing that took place on his behalf in the Aug. 20 election.
The White House played down the impact of a withdrawal by Abdullah and indicated it was prepared to work with a new government headed 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.
"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 added that the U.S. "does not support any particular candidate. We support a credible process, and that's exactly what we have seen. "
As auditors reviewed fraudulent votes in Kabul, President Obama was reviewing U.S. troop levels in Washington. The President has yet to decide whether to send some 40,000 more soldiers and Marines as called for by his handpicked commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
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."
But most observers think that Abdullah, a former foreign minister under the Karzai Administration, would face long odds in the runoff. As hopes faded for concessions from Karzai, Abdullah's campaign advisers agreed late in the week that he should pull out of the election unless Karzai accepted proposals to curb fraudulent votes, the Abdullah aide said.
Abdullah has called a meeting Sunday morning with hundreds of his supporters to announce his decision at a historic venue - the large tent that was site of the loya jirga gathering where Afghan leaders met to set up a transitional government after the fall of the Taliban.
Western officials here say the major unanswered question is how Abdullah will frame his decision. A gracious statement of withdrawal could open the way to healing some of the political wounds that have festered since 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 the runoff itself. Many 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 Afghan Independent Election Commission, with members largely appointed by Karzai had 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," Najfi told McClatchy.
The United Nations estimates the second round elections will cost more than $20 million and require extensive military preparations to try to secure polling places. It would be a frustrating prospect to go to all this trouble for an election discredited by one candidate's withdrawal.
In a press conference last week, Abdullah demanded the resignation of Azizullah Ludin, the election commission chair and other actions, but Karzai rejected the demands.
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.
Abdullah had informed U.S. diplomats that he is open to a deal in which Karzai would carry out government reforms and invite Abdullah backers into the government in return for Abdullah's withdrawal from the race. Karzai rejected such proposals.
The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the election, and on Wednesday insurgents assaulted a guesthouse full of UN workers, killing five and injuring nine.
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington.)
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