Afghan presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah plans to boycott next week's runoff against incumbent Hamid Karzai following a breakdown in talks on how to prevent electoral fraud, two people familiar with the discussions said.
A boycott would severely undermine a vote intended to affirm the Afghan government's credibility. However, an Abdullah spokesman said no final decision had been made on the candidate's pullout, and it was possible that word of the boycott was a negotiating tactic by the Abdullah camp.
The political stalemate in Kabul comes as President Barack Obama has been meeting with his advisers to try to determine U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, including troop levels. A weakened Afghan government will make it harder for Obama to get public support for his efforts.
Abdullah, who was once Karzai's foreign minister, put forward several conditions this week to avoid a repeat of the massive fraud of the August presidential election, including the replacement of the top election official and the suspension of several ministers.
He set Saturday as the deadline for his demands to be met.
A Westerner close to talks between the two sides cited both Karzai and Abdullah as saying that the talks broke down Friday, and that the breakdown prompted Abdullah to decide on a boycott of the Nov. 7 runoff. An Afghan figure close to Abdullah confirmed that account Saturday, saying the decision came after a contentious and fruitless meeting Thursday.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that the announcement must come from Abdullah himself.
The Afghan said a boycott was certain, and that Abdullah would likely tell his supporters to simply stay home during the vote. The likely boycott was first reported by CNN.
The Afghan constitution says that any vote cast for a candidate who withdraws will not be counted. However, it does not specifically address a candidate who does not formally withdraw but urges supporters to boycott the polls.
A spokesman for the Abdullah campaign, Fazel Sancharaki, said no decision had been made on the candidate's boycott and that he would wait until the end of Saturday to see if his demands are met before making any announcement, likely on Sunday.
The runoff election in Afghanistan became necessary after widespread fraud in the first round of voting in August resulted in thousands of Karzai's ballots being invalidated, pushing him below the required 50 percent margin to win. Concerns have been raised about a possible repetition of the ballot-box stuffing and distorted tallies in the second round.
Abdullah complained Monday that there were no assurances that the November vote would be fairer than the first balloting and demanded that the head of the Karzai-appointed Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, be fired.
Lodin has denied allegations of bias in favor of Karzai, and the election commission's spokesman has already said Lodin cannot be replaced by either side.
Abdullah also demanded changes in several ministries and a power-sharing deal, the person close to the talks told The Associated Press.
Abdullah was pressing for a power-sharing agreement with Karzai instead of a vote, but Karzai refused, insisting instead on a vote and then a power-sharing agreement, the person said.
Despite the massive fraud and rejected ballots, Karzai's vote in the first round was far higher than Abdullah's and he is widely expected to win the runoff.
This year's election — the first run by Afghans since the ouster of the Taliban — was supposed to affirm the government's credibility. Instead, the massive fraud raised questions about the Karzai administration just as U.S. officials are debating whether to send more troops.
The Taliban, who threatened voters during the August balloting, have warned Afghans that they risk further attacks if they do not stay away from the polls next week.
On Wednesday they targeted a U.N. guest house where 34 staff — including a number of U.N. election workers — were sleeping. Eight people were killed in the assault, five of them U.N. staff members.