By John Chalmers
KABUL, May 18 (Reuters) - One of President Hamid Karzai’s chief rivals said on Monday he was determined to stay in the running for August’s election, but would be open for talks with a third candidate to avoid splitting the opposition vote.
Abdullah Abdullah told Reuters in an interview that it would be an "uphill struggle" for the opposition to win, in large part because Karzai’s use of state apparatus to support his campaign for re-election would dash the chances for a free and fair poll.
He was having only general discussions with the other main opposition candidate, ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani, who said on Sunday he was in talks with Abdullah about uniting to narrow the field of frontrunners from three to two and defeat Karzai.
"As we move along we need to ... keep the door open for negotiations. But I am not saying that there is any concrete discussion on merging," Abdullah said. "I am not in a position to say that I will be dropping out of the race."
The Aug. 20 vote will be a defining event for Afghanistan, as thousands of additional foreign troops are being poured into the country to battle an escalating Taliban insurgency.
Forty-four candidates have registered, but Abdullah and Ghani are the highest-profile challengers to Karzai, who took office under an internationally brokered deal after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and won Afghanistan’s first democratic election in 2004.
Karzai’s popularity has waned both at home and abroad, and many Afghans complain that his government is corrupt and ineffective, but diplomats say he is the clear favourite because of the opposition’s failure to rally around a single candidate.
"SURRENDER, OR CHANGE"
Abdullah was a key figure in the inner circle of Ahmad Shah Masood, guerrilla commander, enemy of the Taliban and hero of the ethnic Tajiks, who was assassinated by al Qaeda just two days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Abdullah’s association with Masood’s northern, Tajik-led movement could deter voters from the south and Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group, though his father was a Pashtun.
"My main constituency, a significant number will be from the north, but still ... we have supporters in the south and the east as well," Abdullah said, adding that he was also winning over backers of other prominent figures who had decided not to run.
Abdullah, Karzai’s foreign minister from 2001-06, shrugged off the president’s decision to name another powerful Masood ally, ex-guerrilla commander Mohammad Qasim Fahim, as one of two vice presidential running mates.
"No doubt he (Karzai) thinks he (Fahim) can bring votes," he said. "Good luck to both. The choice is between President Karzai and me, not between me and Marshall Fahim."
Abdullah, who speaks fluent English and dresses elegantly in lounge suits with a handkerchief tucked into the breast pocket, says he wants to lead a democratic and moderate Islamic country.
Voicing concern that the election would be rigged and that Karzai would use government resources to drive his campaign, he said the vote was a chance for Afghanistan to turn the corner.
"The option is to surrender to the status quo or change it," he said. "Change is our survival. Our survival depends on this." (Editing by Peter Graff and Paul Tait)