Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah withdraws from elections

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said today that he will not participate in this week's runoff election against President Hamid Karzai, accusing the government of not meeting his demands for a fair vote.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah
Image: U.S. DoD photo by R. D. Ward.
President Hamid Karzai
Image: Paul Morse.

Abdullah said that his withdrawal is in protest of what he called the misconduct of the government and the country's Independent Election Commission (IEC).

Abdullah had given Karzai until Saturday to remove the country's top election official Azizullah Ludin in an effort to avoid a repeat of the massive fraud that marred the August 20 presidential election. He also asked that four of the ministers who had campaigned for Karzai be suspended.

"I will not participate in the November 7 election [because a] transparent election is not possible," Abdullah said.

At a meeting in a tent in Afghanistan's capital Kabul, the candidate addressed a crowd of supporters. “In order to look God in the eye at this historic moment, I have made a decision,” he told the meeting in a giant tent in Kabul. In protest against the illegal actions of the government and the electoral commission, I will not participate in the run-off. It hasn’t been easy for me to make this decision."

Negotiations between the Karzai and Abdullah campaigns regarding Abdullah's demands were held, but broke down early on Sunday, after Karzai completely rejected the deal. According to an unnamed diplomat, had Karzai agreed to the deal, Abdullah would have conceded, instead of withdrawing from the polls.

"In one hour, all my conditions could have been implemented. Unfortunately, until the last moment we were waiting, but we heard they rejected our appeals," Abdullah said.

Waheed Omar, a spokesman for the Karzai campaign, defended Karzai's refusal, saying that the president didn't have the power to implement Abdullah's demands. "What the UN called a shake-up of the election commission, that also to most part took place. But this specific demand was about removing the chairman of the election commission - constitutionally the President cannot remove them unless they are convicted by the court of law," he said.

Following his announcement, Abdullah requested his supporters "not to take to the streets. Not to feel grief. I know it is difficult," Abdullah said. "After all, this is not [a] democratic environment. But at the same time, it is for a good cause. It is for the future generations of this country."

"The people have the right to have a fair election. But this election was a failure. It was not independent. It was not transparent."

In an interview with the Al Jazeera news agency, Abdullah described his feelings. "It was the right decision, and I did it in the best interests of this country. As far as the process is concerned, hopefully there is a way forward. I will not enter into the constitutional implications of this decision. But I'll be pursuing the agenda for change and reform in any capacity that I'll be."

Karzai campaign spokesman Omar said he believed the election is the right of the Afghan people. "The withdrawal was Dr. Abdullah's personal choice. That should not affect the process as a whole," Omar said. He described the withdrawal as "unfortunate", but said he believed the elections should still continue. "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."

This election's first polls, which were held this August, were affected by large amounts of ballot-stuffing, and over a million votes, or about a quarter of all ballots cast, were discounted by the election commissions. As a result, Karzai's vote count dropped to 49.67%, below the minimum of 50% needed to win the election without going into a runoff. Abdullah received 31% of the ballot.

Power-sharing possibilities

Abdullah said that he would still “leave the door open” for future talks with Karzai. He refused to indicate what he believed should happen next, and would not endorse Karzai's presidential candidacy. He said that his decision to pull out was not done “in exchange for anything from anybody."

Both sides are reasonable people. They have worked together in the past. I think some kind of compromise is possible.

—Shah Asifi, vice-presidential candidate for Abdullah

"For the next few days I will let Mr. Karzai work it out for himself. I will be in the country. I will not shut any doors, but I will stick to the principles of my campaign," said Abdullah.

His vice-presidential candidate, Shah Asifi, indicated that a power-sharing agreement between the two candidates might be feasible. "We have two moderate people. Both sides are reasonable people. They have worked together in the past. I think some kind of compromise is possible."

Baryalai Arsalai, who was one of the presidential contenders before dropping out in the first round of votes to back Abdullah, said that a power sharing agreement could help make the government seem more legitimate.

Hamid Karzai at a speech in February 2009

An unnamed European diplomat predicted that Abdullah would be encouraged to formally retract his statements, and for the Afghan Supreme Court to rule a second round of voting as unnecessary. "We don't see there will be any interest in a second round now. It will be a waste of time and resources," he said.

Other diplomats told the Daily Telegraph news agency that there was little desire to host a second ballot with a single candidate, saying it would risk the lives of soldiers and voters, as the Taliban had pledged to disrupt elections with violence.

International reaction

United Nations spokesman Aleem Siddique told the Voice of America (VOA) news agency that he believed Abdullah's decision was a difficult one. He said it was up to Afghan authorities to determine how to proceed. "We need to wait to hear from Afghanistan's legal institutions - the Independent Election Commission and the Supreme Court - to give their interpretation of the next steps ahead," Siddique said.

He added, however, that it might be impractical to continue with the election, with one candidate. "It's difficult to see how you can have a runoff with only one candidate," he said.

Political analyst Haroun Mir said that the election's credibility would largely depend on voter turnout. "Everything will depend on the voter turnout. If the turnout is high, [...] Karzai will be declared winner and he'll have legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghans and in the international community," Mir told Al Jazeera. "But if the turnout is very low - below 25% - Karzai will be declared legally as president, but will not enjoy strong legitimacy."

Afghan election officials said that according to the country's constitution, the polls must be held. A spokesman for the election commission told VOA that Abdullah had missed the deadline to officially withdraw. However, there has been increasing international pressure for Afghanistan to come up with some legal measures to bring an end to the elections. The IEC said it would review the constitution and decide whether polls really should be held or not.

British prime minister Gordon Brown said that "Dr Abdullah has pulled out of the election in the interests of national unity." He added that he told Karzai he believed it was important to establish an "inclusive administration" to fight corruption and create a popular local government, and to reach out to "all parts of Afghan society."

“The issue for me is what is to happen to Afghanistan in the future, given that our soldiers have contributed so much to the development of Afghan society,” said the Prime Minister. “What is going to happen is we have got to have a visible sign that the new administration is tackling corruption.”

What is your opinion on Abdullah's move? Do you think some sort of power sharing agreement would work? What should happen next?

The United States government said that it would recognise Abdullah's withdrawal, and would support the next president. In a statement, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said that she "recognize[d] the decision by Dr Abdullah Abdullah not to participate in the second round of balloting in the Afghan presidential elections.

"It is now a matter for the Afghan authorities to decide on a way ahead that brings this electoral process to a conclusion in line with the Afghan constitution," she said. "We will support the next president and the people of Afghanistan, who seek and deserve a better future."

Clinton also encouraged Abdullah to continue his peace efforts in the country. “We hope that he will continue to stay engaged in the national dialogue and work on behalf of the security and prosperity of the people of Afghanistan,” she said.

Senior White House aides also said that the US government was not likely to affect president Barack Obama's decision on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. Abdullah's resignation came soon after the top US army commander in the country, Stanley McChrystal, requested an additional 40,000 troops to help fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The US, however, has been expected not to announce any new troop plans until after the runoff elections concluded.

John Boehner, the Republican House Minority leader, remarked that the withdrawal would "not hamper our decision with regard to Afghanistan." However, he encouraged Obama to make a decision regarding the country's Iraq military strategies soon.

"The longer this decision hangs, the more jeopardy and the more danger our troops on the ground there are in the middle of," said Boehner. "I think everyone expected that President Karzai was going to be re-elected. So Dr Abdullah's exit from this race, I think, really says more about the fact that he knew he wasn't going to win."

Senior White House advisor David Axelrod spoke about Abdullah's move in the televised "Face the Nation" programme on Sunday. "Abdullah Abdullah made a political decision to withdraw. That doesn't markedly change the situation," he said.

According to polls, Abdullah would have likely lost a runoff election anyway, Axelrod said. "So we are going to deal with the government that is there. And obviously there are issues we need to discuss, such as reducing the high level of corruption. These are issues we'll take up with President Karzai."


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