KABUL, Afghanistan -- As he announced his withdrawal from the presidential runoff Sunday, Abdullah Abdullah refused to concede that his rival, President Hamid Karzai, could be the legitimate winner of Afghanistan's marathon election.
Instead, Abdullah, a former foreign minister, ended his quest for the presidency with more attacks on Karzai appointees whom he charged had helped facilitate fraud in the Aug. 20 election, and were setting the stage for more fraud in the Nov. 7 runoff.
Standing under a poster with the English words, "No government without elections can be `standable' and lawful," he put the blame on Karzai. "My requests were for a transparent election, and they could been carried out in a single hour if Karzai had the intention," Abdullah said.
It was a confusing close to a turbulent campaign that saw insurgent attacks, epic vote rigging and bitter infighting among Afghans -- and western diplomats -- in a nation beset by three decades of war.
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Abdullah's departure underscores the problems of the young democracy, which is being kept alive by western troops and afloat by international aid: the legitimacy of its government remains in question.
Despite a $300 million investment to fund the elections and the dispatch of tens of thousands troops to secure polling places, western nations will not get the credible winner they hoped could help rally the Afghan people and regain momentum against a powerful Taliban-led insurgency.
"The next step must be to bring the electoral process to a conclusion in a legal and timely manner," said Kai Eide of Norway, who heads the U.N. mission in Afghanistan.
"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, " Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.
"It's a fiasco," said Peter Galbraith, the former U.S. ambassador who was fired as deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan after clashing with Eide about how hard to press Karzai about the fraud.
President Obama is still reviewing plans to send more troops and more U.S. aid to shore up the Afghan government. And the U.S. and other western countries are bracing to cope with the new political landscape before them.
The Karzai government has been dramatically weakened by a loss of control over much of the country to the Taliban-led insurgency. Its popularity has plummeted, with analysts saying that endemic corruption has helped the Taliban rebuild a power base. Now, election fraud adds another dimension to Karzai's problems as he begins five more years in power.
But western diplomats here are hoping to achieve at least modest changes in the Karzai government and that Abdullah supporters will take up some important cabinet posts. But he is unlikely to sever some of the controversial alliances with regional bosses that have helped shore up his political support but also opened the door to widespread graft.
Western diplomats are hoping there will be less tolerance for blatant corruption, and that a strengthened Interior Ministry will pursue cases that lead to Karzai allies. One sign of what may be in store was a recent raid at the Kabul Airport that cracked a ring of crooked customs officials who'd been siphoning millions of dollars from the government treasury.
"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, " Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said on the CBS program "Face the Nation." "These are issues we'll take up with President Karzai."
Less certain is whether Karzai will embrace Abdullah's proposals for more checks on the wide-ranging powers of the Afghan presidency. Abdullah called for direct elections for provincial governors, all of whom are now Karzai appointees.
In a country were loyalties are tribal or ethnic, there is now discussion about establishing new political parties. Some western officials see Abdullah as the launch point for one such party. They view the election as a transformative experience, in which the former foreign minister emerged as an articulate voice on behalf of Afghan democracy.
The fate of the runoff itself is in the hands of the election commission, which Abdullah charged had favored Karzai. U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique expressed doubt it will go forward. "It's difficult to see how there can be a runoff with only one candidate." If the runoff is cancelled, Karzai will win with 49 percent of the Aug. 20 vote, ahead of Abdullah with 32 percent. But Abdullah has claimed that much of the fraud was never discovered.
Karzai said Sunday he is ready to go ahead with the election but will accept the decision of the commission, which meets Monday.
Abdullah said little about his own future plans. He said he would keep an open door to talks with Karzai, and pledged to stay active in promoting Afghan democracy.
Galbraith told McClatchy that Abdullah was right to demand the removal of Azizullah Ludin, Karzai's hand-picked Independent Election Commission chairman, for presiding over the massive first-round fraud and adding more voting booths in the second round in areas where fraud had already occurred. Karzai said he did not have the legal power to fire Ludin.
Galbraith also expressed concern that the outcome would "hurt" the military effort to crush the Taliban-led insurgency because it leaves the United States and its allies without "a credible partner."
""There is no way that Karzai can escape the taint of fraud," said Galbraith. "He is going to be seen as illegitimate by most of the Afghan people."
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed.)
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