The elections in Afghanistan, meant to showcase the progress made towards democracy, are in fresh disarray, sowing fear and uncertainty about the country's future. The campaign manager of Abdullah Abdullah, the challenger to President Hamid Karzai, said last night that his man intends to call today for a boycott of next Saturday's election run-off. This was organised after the first round of polls became mired in corruption and controversy. Dr Abdullah will now call for a spring poll.
Last night, however, frantic talks were being held between the Abdullah and Karzai camps, brokered by the United Nations, US and Britain. The restarted negotiations centred on the division of ministries between the two protagonists.
Senior diplomatic sources said that the UN was desperate to avoid a second-round run-off because of the security and logistical problems. The main sticking point appeared to be the demands of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former mujahedin commander who is demanding his share of portfolios in a coalition government.
Dr Abdullah, the former foreign minister, will hold a public rally today, at which he is expected to announce whether or not he will continue in the contest. Although Dr Abdullah himself has remained silent, his supporters have been busy spreading the word that their candidate will withdraw because there is bound to be malpractice in the next round of voting as well.
Yesterday Dr Abdullah cancelled a visit to India for a "leadership conference" where he would have met senior US political figures. The Americans, who had played a key part in forcing President Karzai to accept a second round, now appear to accept that a further vote would have little legitimacy.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former US ambassador to the country, who had been attempting to broker a deal between Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah, said the latter was dropping out for two reasons. "First, he does not have much money left, and second, he thinks that, given the situation, he's likely to lose, and maybe he'll get less votes than he did in the first round, which would be embarrassing."
There is a widespread consensus that Mr Karzai, coming from the majority Pashtun population, will emerge the winner. Dr Abdullah is of mixed Pashtun and Tajik parentage, but his support is broadly restricted to the Tajik community. Other minority groups, such as the Hazaras and Uzbeks, appear to have been bought off by deals made with the incumbent.
According to Afghan sources, Dr Abdullah, aware that his bargaining position would be weaker following a defeat, has been pressing for a power-sharing arrangement under which a number of his supporters would receive ministerial posts. Mr Karzai, still smarting from being forced into the run-off, has insisted that any deal would have to wait until after the voting.
The political crisis in Afghanistan comes against the background of another crisis – that of the deteriorating security situation. As the electoral process was unfurling in Kabul, US President Barack Obama was deep in consultation with his advisers on future strategy in a war that is being increasingly called his "Vietnam". General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan has asked for up to 40,000 more troops. Vice-President Joe Biden, however, opposes further deployment of forces and wants to concentrate on a counter-terrorist mission, hunting al-Qa'ida along the Pakistani border and beyond.
Both courses would necessarily entail further American and Nato losses, with questions already being asked in America and Europe about why their soldiers are fighting and dying for an Afghan government that is internationally labelled as corrupt.
The extent of ballot-rigging at the last election was illustrated by the latest inquiries into the manipulation of women's votes, which has a particular irony, say critics, as one reason given by the US and Britain for the invasion of 2001 was female emancipation. In at least a dozen cases men turned up at polling stations carrying bundles of voting cards supposedly from female members of extended families.
The second-round ballot was supposed to eliminate such corrupt practices. Last week Dr Abdullah presented a list of demands to be met for him to remain in the run-off. This included the sacking of the chief of the Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, seen as a Karzai placeman, the removal of a large number of election monitoring staff whose performance had been suspect, and the closure of hundreds of "ghost polling stations" where large-scale ballot stuffing was supposed to have taken place.
The commission stated that Mr Lodin cannot be fired while the voting process continued. It agreed to the replacement of 200 election officials, but announced it will open 6,322 sites, up from 6,167 in the first round and significantly above the 5,817 recommended by the United Nations.
Haroun Mir, head of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy Studies, said that Dr Abdullah is thought to have pressed for a caretaker government and fresh elections early next year, by which time Mr Karzai would have had less of a grip on the state apparatus to influence voting.
"Even now a compromise is something which would be welcomed by the Afghans and the international community. If voting goes ahead without Dr Abdullah taking part, there would be questions of legitimacy over Mr Karzai's win," he said.
However another analyst, Waheed Mujhda, said: "There is a feeling among Afghans that this second round was the wish of the foreigners as a way of punishing Karzai. It was the West which wanted it, not Afghans."
Mr Karzai's campaign spokesman, Noor Akbari, said that Dr Abdullah should not be allowed to avoid the second round: "In our constitution we have no other way but to go through with an election. If anybody boycotts, it's a crime and it's an illegal act."
The constitution, in fact, says no such thing. However, it does stipulate that the leader of country must be chosen in an election which is transparently fair and recognised as being such. That is a condition which looks unlikely to be fulfilled in the next turbulent chapter of democracy coming to Afghanistan.