Afghanistan has been thrown into fresh political crisis after the presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah withdrew yesterday from a poll run-off scheduled for Saturday. The move in effect clears the way for Hamid Karzai to retain power despite the fact that he was stripped of his first round election majority because of rampant fraud. A weakened Karzai administration, shorn of electoral legitimacy, represents a major blow to Western powers as they consider whether to send more troops to Afghanistan for the military campaign against the Taliban.
The US administration played a key part in forcing Mr Karzai to accept a second round to give the election process validity. Yesterday Washington was left insisting that the withdrawal of one runner in a two-horse race would not delegitimise the proceedings. "I don't think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election." the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said,adding: "It's a matter of personal choice."
But Mr Abdullah withdrew after last minute attempts by American and UN officials to broker a power-sharing deal foundered. In an emotional announcement the former foreign minister said: " As far as I'm concerned, the decision I have reached is not to participate. I have strong reservations about the credibility of the process."
Afghan officials were still insisting the second round would go ahead despite Mr Karzai has no opposition. They said both names would be on the ballot. Mr Abdullah said he was standing down because his demands for a fraud-free poll had not been met and he ruled out a coalition deal with Mr Karzai.
The presidential elections were meant to showcase the progress made towards democracy since the overthrow of the Taliban. Instead they have been mired in uncertainty.
With attempts to engineer a deal between the two Afghan protagonists failing senior Western diplomats were reduced to pleading with Mr Abdullah to "withdraw" from rather than "boycott" the polling and to desist from focusing on fraud and further weaken the credibility of governance in the country.
They were only half successful. Mr Abdullah said he had "decided not to participate" in the next round but then repeatedly stated that the reason he was doing so was because the refusal by Mr Karzai to carry out the reforms he had demanded exposed the run-off to same malpractice as the previous round. "In protest against the illegal actions of the government and the electoral commission, I will not participate in the run-off of the second round of the presidential election" he said.
In his withdrawal speech Mr Abdullah sought the moral high ground by declaring that he had not sought a position in a coalition with Mr Karzai and had taken his decision as a change of direction from the old order. However, senior diplomatic sources told The Independent that horse trading had been going on over ministries between Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah with the interests of former president Burhanuddin Rabani also represented late into Sunday night, and then until two hours before Mr Abdullah's public statement of withdrawal yesterday morning.
Mr Abdullah had wanted to put supporters, rather than himself, into Mr Karzai's cabinet. There was no direct contact between the two men, instead messages were ferried between Kai Eide, the head of the UN mission, who has been speaking to Mr Abdullah and Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador, who was liaising with Mr Karzai.
Mr Karzai's campaign spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the decision was "very unfortunate" but also held that the run-off should proceed. "We believe that the elections have to go on," he said. "The people of Afghanistan have to be given the right to vote."
But UN spokesperson Aleem Siddique raised doubts. "The obvious question is how does one have a run-off with just one candidate." In London, Gordon Brown said he was sure Mr Abdullah's decision was "carefully considered" adding "I am confident that Afghanistan's leaders will support the remaining steps of the democratic process."