Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s challenger withdrew on Sunday from next weekend’s runoff election, effectively handing the incumbent a victory but raising doubts about the credibility of the government at a time when the U.S. is seeking an effective partner in the war against the Taliban.
The former Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said he made his decision after Mr. Karzai turned down his demands for changes to the Independent Election Commission and other measures that he said would prevent massive fraud, which marred the first round of balloting on August 20.
Mr. Abdullah stopped short of calling for an electoral boycott and urged his followers “not to go to the streets, not to demonstrate”.
Azizullah Lodin, head of the Karzai-appointed Commission, said he would have to confer with constitutional lawyers before deciding later on Sunday whether the runoff would proceed without Mr. Abdullah.
Kai Eide, top U.N. official in Afghanistan, said in a statement the next step is to “bring this electoral process to a conclusion in a legal and timely manner”.
The statement did not address whether the runoff should go forward, though U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique said it looked impractical.
“It’s difficult to see how you can have a runoff with only one candidate,” said Mr. Siddique.
A clouded electoral picture further complicates the Obama administration’s efforts to decide whether to send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan to battle the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies.
The White House has been waiting for a new government in Kabul to announce a decision, but the war has intensified in the meantime. October was the deadliest month of the war for U.S. forces with at least 57 American deaths.
Before the announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton downplayed the prospect of an Abdullah withdrawal, saying it would not undermine the legitimacy of the election.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election,” Ms. Clinton told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. “It’s a personal choice.”
Nevertheless, the contentious electoral process has divided anti-Taliban groups at a time when the U.S. and its allies are pressing for unity in the face of growing insurgent strength.
U.S. officials pressured Mr. Karzai into agreeing to a runoff after U.N.-backed auditors threw out nearly a third of his votes from the August ballot, citing fraud.
Mr. Karzai’s campaign spokesman, Waheed Omar, said it was “very unfortunate” that Mr. Abdullah had withdrawn but that the Saturday runoff should proceed.
“We believe that the elections have to go on, the process has to complete itself, the people of Afghanistan have to be given the right to vote,” said Mr. Omar.
In an emotional speech, Mr. Abdullah told supporters that the Election Commission had engineered massive fraud in the first-round vote, but his demands for replacing the top leadership had been rejected.
“I will not participate in the Nov. 7 election,” he said, because a “transparent election is not possible.”