Afghanistan's rival presidential candidates may reach a deal on how to share power late on Tuesday, according to Afghan and Western officials, potentially ending months of tension over the outcome of a run-off election held in June.
The struggle to find a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who has held power since the Islamist Taliban were ousted in 2001, has destabilized Afghanistan and paralyzed its economy just as most foreign troops withdraw.
The rival candidates for the presidency have been negotiating for months on how to share power and the U.S. secretary of state has twice flown in to try to broker a deal.
Abdullah Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban fighter who later served as foreign minister, says the election was rigged against him. His rival, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, denies that.
“If no new issues arise... it is possible and expected that it could be concluded at the meeting today,” Ghani's spokesman, Faizullah Zaki, said of an elusive pact.
A deal between rival camps is widely seen as the best hope for peace after the fraud-marred vote dented confidence in the legitimacy of the process and fuelled ethnic and tribal rivalries between the teams.
Preliminary figures indicate that Ghani led the second round by more than a million votes, and the results of a U.N. supervised audit are also expected to show he is the winner, according to officials involved in the process.
Abdullah's team, however, disputes the legitimacy of the process and is calling for political power to be shared. Ghani's camp says everyone should accept the outcome once it is announced.
“The whole process will mean nothing if the results are not accepted,” Zaki said. “For the government of national unity to be shared, there must be a legitimately elected and accepted president.”
Abdullah's team did not discuss details but said progress had been made the previous day and a clearer picture would emerge later on Tuesday.
Tension between power-brokers in both camps has stoked ethnic tension and revived fears of another round of civil war, mirroring the conflict that devastated the country through the 1990s and enabled the Taliban to seize control in 1996.
President Hamid Karzai has denied accusations that he has taken advantage of the deadlock to prolong his stay in power and insisted he is looking forward to stepping down.
His spokesman said Monday's breakthrough in talks had taken place during a meeting between the two candidates and the president, who was hopeful a deal would soon be announced.
“Both of the candidates were of the opinion that they made good progress and they are close to finalizing it soon,” Aimal Faizi said.