As the one-year countdown to Afghan elections begins, the man who lost out last time in a corrupt and chaotic poll is weighing up whether to risk another shot at the presidency.
Abdullah Abdullah pulled out of the second round of the 2009 election after massive vote-rigging by President Hamid Karzai’s supporters that badly shook the U.S.-led international effort to rebuild Afghanistan.
The next election is due on April 5, 2014, but many doubt it will be held on schedule. There are no front-runners and foreign donors fear another flawed poll could bury gains secured since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Abdullah, an urbane former eye surgeon, remains embittered towards Karzai and doubts the president will step down without a fight - despite the fact he is barred from standing for a third term.
He accuses Karzai, 55, of plotting to deceive the electorate in spite of repeated pledges to step down next year.
“President Karzai will make an effort to extend his tenure,” the 52-year-old predicted in an interview at his heavily-guarded private residence in Kabul.
“The president’s best option is to create an emergency security situation so everyone says ‘under these circumstances how can we have elections?’, then he calls a jirga (tribal meeting) to support him staying on,” Abdullah said.
“He doesn't show any signs of being someone who is now leaving in one year’s time.”
Abdullah served as Karzai’s foreign minister from 2001 to 2005, but is now leader of the National Coalition of Afghanistan, the closest thing to an opposition group in a country where central government is traditionally weak.
A former aide to the late anti-Soviet fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, Abdullah commands support among minority Tajiks but not the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group from which Karzai and most members of the Taliban hail.
Recalling the turbulent 2009 election, Abdullah said he was wary of campaigning again for the presidency.
The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) threw out around one third of votes - about half a million -cast for Karzai, sparking the run-off from which Abdullah ultimately withdrew “in the best interests of the nation.”
“I don’t want any candidate to go through what I did during the elections,” said Abdullah, who collected just over 30 percent of the first round vote.
“In one district 5,000 people voted one by one, while in the next district officials under the supervision of the police just provided 5,000 votes. If the elections are rigged this time, it is a recipe for a major crisis.”
Few solutions to Afghanistan’s problems
Many observers suggest Abdullah offers few solutions to Afghanistan’s many problems and has not cultivated enough support to have a chance of winning.
But, with a year to go until the scheduled poll he said he was working hard behind the scenes and - if he were to stand- would not this time back down in the event of a run-off.
“It would not be like the last time when I said I would swallow this bitter pill for the sake of the country,” he said.
“I haven’t said I am a candidate. I am doing what candidates do - talking to people, networking, expanding supporters, but a decision has not happened yet.”
While it is not yet clear who will run in 2014, the lengthy list of possible candidates includes Karzai’s brother Qayyum, warlord turned provincial governor Atta Mohammad Noor, and former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali.
At least 26 people were killed in sporadic attacks on polling day in 2009, and Karzai was only declared the winner 10 weeks later, after fraud investigations, delayed results and Abdullah’s eventual withdrawal.
Recent visitors to Kabul including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have stressed that Afghanistan must hold a legitimate vote or risk being abandoned by Western governments after foreign combat troops withdraw next year.
One growing concern has been Karzai’s plan to scrap the U.N.-backed ECC, which includes foreign representatives, in favor of a new all-Afghan tribunal.
Last week the U.N. called for an impartial electoral dispute body to be set up at once and for a respected figure to be appointed head of the Independent Electoral Commission, which is currently leaderless.
“Either we have rule of law or we are a failed state. This election is an opportunity and a real test ahead of us,” Abdullah said.