Rumours grow that Abdullah will quit election

Kabul was awash with rumours that Abdullah Abdullah could be on the point of pulling out of the second round of the Afghan elections. They have been organised after President Hamid Karzai was deprived of victory following allegations of widespread fraud.

A deadline set by Dr Abdullah expires today for the implementation and managing of sweeping changes to the run-off election, scheduled for 7 November.

The former foreign minister has been holding extensive talks with his supporters and foreign diplomats on whether he should carry on with his campaign.

Yesterday Dr Abdullah refused to answer questions from the media about his position on continuing with the run-off. It is expected that he will announce whether he continues with his challenge in the very near future.

While the main factor behind the holding of the second round was international disquiet at the scale of ballot rigging carried out by President Karzai's supporters, both he and Dr Abdullah have been under sustained Western pressure to reach an agreement.

Organising another set of polls presents severe logistical and security problems. The onset of winter is creating major difficulties for polling in the northern provinces, and the murderous Taliban attack on a UN guesthouse in Kabul this week, killing five UN workers, carried the menace of more of the same.

There was also unease at the prospect of the new polls reinforcing sectarian divisions between the followers of Mr Karzai, a Pashtun, and Dr Abdullah who has Pashtun and Tajik ancestry but draws his support mainly from the Tajik community.

On the other hand, if Dr Abdullah withdraws from the race because his conditions for continuing – which include the sacking of election commissioners deemed to be the President's placemen – have not been met, Mr Karzai's default victory would do nothing to improve the tarnished image of Afghan democracy. It would leave the impression that Mr Karzai has won on a vote widely regarded as rigged, and with his chief opponent claiming in effect that the same sort of malpractice would continue in the next round.

Although talks have been going on behind the scenes, there is no clear evidence, say Afghan and foreign sources, that Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah have arrived at an understanding. Although both men have served together in government in the past, they have exchanged many bitter words in recent months. Dr Abdullah repeatedly stressed during the recriminations over the last elections that he would not serve under Mr Karzai. However, it is widely accepted that Dr Abdullah has little to gain from carrying on with a contest which Mr Karzai, coming from the majority Pashtun community, is almost bound to win. The US administration has played a key role in insisting on a second round but Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, has publicly acknowledged that Mr Karzai is going to emerge as the winner.

Western diplomats hinted yesterday that Dr Abdullah could declare that he was dropping out to spare his country the aggravation of fresh elections. In return, a series of reforms may be wrung out of Mr Karzai, including more stringent checks on corruption, and a degree of decentralisation.

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