"I will not participate in the election."
These words by Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah -- broadcast live around the world today -- push Afghanistan into great uncertainty.
The political crisis comes at a time when the United States and the rest of international community are debating their future course in Afghanistan, where large swathes of the country are controlled by the Taliban.
Abdullah stopped short of calling on his supporters to boycott the runoff vote on November 7 against incumbent President Hamid Karzai, but his decision moves the process into uncharted territory. Even if the Afghan Electoral Commission and the Karzai camp go ahead with the voting, the legitimacy of the process could be widely questioned at home and internationally.
Afghans will be closely watching Abdullah’s support base, some of whom -- like Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of the northern Balkh Province -- effectively control parts of the country. Their actions in the near future might prove the key to stability in Afghanistan. If they decide to boycott the process -- or worse, resist holding the vote at all -- it might push the country into a much bigger crisis.
Tense street protests -- with the looming potential of violence -- are another possible outcome. In the aftermath of the August 20 vote, Afghan observers saw the rival sides fomenting ethnic tension for their own political ends. Karzai, a Pashtun, and Abdullah, also a Pashtun with a Tajik support base, each received support that crossed ethnic and regional boundaries.
Supporters of both candidates engaged in mutual accusations of fraud following the first round. At times, the bitter arguments developed ethnic undertones, with hawks from Karzai’s side portraying themselves as protectors of Pashtuns, and hawks from Abdullah's side as protectors of Tajiks. The situation inflamed raw Afghan nerves because similar disagreements in the recent past often led to fighting.Political Jockeying
While Abdullah won't participate in the runoff, which reports suggest he would have lost anyway, he and his supporters -- including key post-Taliban figures -- have no plans to leave the political arena. In fact, his pullout from the race may be as much about political jockeying as it is over concerns about election transparency.
Abdullah made his announcement only after negotiations with Karzai completely broke down. Although both men have rejected the idea of a coalition government, international observers have been pushing for just such a partnership, which they suggest would have broad legitimacy. Together, the two candidates garnered nearly 80 percent of the votes in the first round.
If few Afghans bother to come out and vote on November 7, it will undermine the legitimacy of a future Karzai administration.
Imagine if Karzai is only elected with 500,000 or fewer votes. He would emerge much weaker and become a leader too compromised to deliver critical reforms, such as reconciliation with the Taliban and a clampdown on corruption and the drug trade.
On October 31, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Abdullah's withdrawal, which had been hinted at, would not undermine the legitimacy of the election. But will it be possible for U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, which has had troubled relations with Karzai, to start afresh?
Karzai has been presented with an opportunity to pull off his political rebirth. His first task will be to reach out to Abdullah and other political opponents so that political friction won’t morph into violence. He can also potentially turn a page in his relationship with the international community.
Ultimately, his success or failure will be defined by ordinary Afghans, who will back him if they see visible improvements in governance and security.