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Afghanistan Poll Chaos as Abdullah Quits Run-Off

by Jeremy Page, Jerome Starkey and Tom Coghlan in Kabul

President Karzai's opponent in Saturday's presidential election run-off pulled out of the race today in protest over the Afghanistan Government's refusal to meet his demands to tackle the massive fraud that tainted the first round in August.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah speaks during a gathering with his supporters in Kabul November 1, 2009. Abdullah quit an election run-off on Sunday after accusing the government of not meeting his demands for a fair vote, but said he was not calling for a boycott. (REUTERS/Ahmad Masood) Abdullah Abdullah stopped short of calling for his supporters to boycott the vote and urged them not to take to the streets in protest, leaving a window open for a power-sharing deal to be brokered by the international community.

"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," Dr Abdullah told a gathering of several hundred supporters in a huge tent in Kabul.

"It hasn't been easy for me to make this decision," he said, choking back tears before the audience of tribal elders and former MujahidIn leaders, mainly from the Tajik-dominated north of Afghanistan.

Asked later if he was asking his supporters to boycott the vote, Dr Abdullah said: "I have not made that call."

His campaign team had threatened to boycott the run-off after Mr Karzai refused to meet several "minimum conditions" to prevent fraud, including dismissing the election chief and suspending three ministers, by a deadline of yesterday.

A total boycott would have challenged the legitimacy of the entire process, which the United States and its allies are desperately hoping will produce a credible government with which they can work to defeat the Taleban.

Dr Abdullah, the former Foreign Minister has come under massive international pressure in the past few days to withdraw gracefully - without challenging the legitimacy of the election - in exchange for a power-sharing deal with President Karzai.

Kai Eide, the UN chief in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, almost brokered a deal this morning, whereby the two men would have divided up ministries and provincial governorships, Western diplomats told The Times.

"They were so close to a deal, but at the last minute something happened," said one diplomat. "As an olive branch to the internationals, Abdullah didn't boycott."

At a news conference after his speech, Dr Abdullah admitted meeting Mr Karzai on Wednesday, but denied having struck a deal with the President. "This is my decision. This is not been made in exchange for anything with anybody," he said.

He conceded, however, that the door was still open for negotiations. "In Afghanistan, even the people who have fought one another, they sit together and they talk," he said.

Mr Karzai's campaign team said that the run-off would go ahead as planned on Saturday with only one candidate.

"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 Wahid Omar, a spokesman for the President.

Mr Karzai needs a second round because the constitution says that any President must have more than 50 per cent of the vote, and he won only 48.3 per cent in the first round after a million of his votes were disqualified for being fraudulent.

The constitution also says that a candidate can withdraw from the second round, but does not specify what should happen thereafter.

Azizullah Ludin, the head of the Independent Election Commission, said that he would have to confer with constitutional lawyers before deciding whether the run-off would proceed without Dr Abdullah.

Diplomats say that a run-off with one candidate is highly unlikely given the huge security threat from the Taleban, which staged multiple attacks during the first round and has vowed to disrupt the run-off as well.

They say it is more likely that the Supreme Court will be asked to make a ruling on the issue.

The court would also have to consider whether there should now be a run-off between President Karzai and Ramazan Bashadorst, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner who surprised everyone by coming third in the first round.

Mr Bashadorst told The Times that he would not take part in a run-off with Mr Karzai on the ground that both the President and Dr Abdullah should have been disqualified after the first round.

The UN-backed investigation that disqualified one million of Mr Karzai's votes, also threw out about 300,000 of Dr Abdullah's.

"We should create a Nobel prize for election fraud, and give it to Mr Karzai as king and Dr Abdullah as queen," said Mr Bashadorst.

"Now Mr Karzai would like to run alone, because he will win, but that will be like the Communist period in the Soviet Union . . . I'm not for violence, but I don't know what will be the reaction of my voters. It is impossible to control each one."

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