By Hamid Shalizi and Jessica Donati
KABUL, June 27 (Reuters) - As thousands of Afghans poured into the streets of Kabul on Friday to protest over the impasse in their country's presidential election, there was little doubt who they held responsible for the mess - outgoing President Hamid Karzai.
"Death to Karzai!" some shouted through loudspeakers as protesters marched on the presidential palace, accusing him of creating the crisis over his successor.
No one has provided any hard evidence that the protesters are right, but even within Karzai's family and inner circle, many believe the president quietly engineered the electoral debacle to keep his hands on the levers of power.
Among them is his brother, Mahmoud Karzai, who says the man who has ruled the war-weary country for more than 12 years deliberately pushed powerful players apart to ensure no one candidate would emerge with a clear majority.
That may mean he stays on by default until a solution is found. Meanwhile, his vice-presidents are now trying to resolve the row between the two candidates in the fraud-marred second round of voting, potentially giving the president an indirect hand in the outcome.
Abdullah Abdullah, one of the two, dropped out of the electoral process in a pique of fury last week, accusing Hamid Karzai of rigging the election to retain control over the next government.
"He tried, from the very beginning, not to allow a clear winner in order to explore the possibilities of staying in power," Mahmoud Karzai told Reuters.
Asked for comments on allegations made by Mahmoud Karzai and others, a spokeswoman for the president repeated a general statement issued by his office: "President Hamid Karzai has been neutral in this process and he repeatedly directed all government workers not to use government apparatus in favor or against a candidate."
Hamid Karzai denies that he has any ambitions to remain in office and told U.S. Special Envoy James Dobbins this week that a new president would be inaugurated Aug. 2 as scheduled.
Jan Kubis, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, however warned the Security Council in an address this week of the risk of "a protracted confrontation with a danger of a slide into violence".
If Afghanistan's first-ever transfer of power is delayed, another key effect could be to doom the already long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Kabul and Washington, which would leave a small contingent of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
The BSA has been blocked since last year by Karzai, who would be unlikely to sign it if he stayed on or allow it to be signed if he retains influence.
That would leave local forces to keep the peace on their own in a county that is riven by ethnic rivalries and dogged by a Taliban insurgency, and it could lead to a meltdown in foreign aid so crucial to the battered economy and security forces.
Although Afghanistan currently has little of the sectarian tensions now tearing Iraq apart, many are anxiously drawing parallels with a country that U.S. troops left in 2011 without a deal to maintain a military presence.
The two contenders for the presidency, Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, both say would sign the BSA promptly if elected.
Brother Mahmoud, who is angry about the president's refusal to back a bid by another brother, Qayum, for the presidency, said Hamid Karzai deliberately pushed powerful candidates apart ahead of the first round of voting to ensure a splintered outcome.
"Karzai encouraged many individuals to run in order to engineer a political quagmire," Mahmoud said.
He argued that this strategy was designed to force a polarizing run-off pitting a Tajik candidate against a Pasthun - Abdullah against Ghani - fueling ethnic rivalries and triggering a crisis that would require his intervention.
Pashtuns dominate the dozens of ethnic groups and tribes that live in Afghanistan, but Tajiks form a substantial minority.
The three brothers were close at the start of the election process, dining together regularly, but Mahmoud says he has had little to do with the president after Qayum dropped out.
Qayum could not be reached for comment.
Others close to the president in the corridors of power agree that in a fraud-ridden electoral system, a close outcome was always going to end in disaster and allow Karzai to step in.
No one who complained in conversations with Reuters however had any concrete evidence of manipulation.
"I told Karzai that things are getting worse and it might get out of control if the people lose faith and trust in the election. Karzai replied, don't worry, everything is manageable," said one confidant, a senior government official, describing a conversation he had with the president last week.
"Now both of his vice-presidents ... are in talks with both candidates to make things smooth and agree on some deal makings, while Karzai himself plays innocent," the official added.
Some diplomats also believe Karzai may use the negotiations to take on some advisory role in a new government.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) conceded that there had been official meddling in the process, but rejected suggestions that Karzai had been part of it.
"There has been interference in the election by government officials and we have raised this," said IEC spokeman Noor Mohammad Noor. "President Hamid Karzai has always tried to make sure there was a transparent election. It is baseless to claim that President Karzai is behind all this."
"A CHOREOGRAPHED PERFORMANCE"
Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network said the first round was genuinely competitive and eliminated the candidate considered by most to be Karzai's favorite.
"The fact that the election was competitive did really knock on the head the conspiracy thoery that he was running the election," Clark said.
Braving threats by the Taliban militants, millions turned out on June 14 to choose between Abdullah and Ghani.
Despite those successes for democracy, some diplomats believe Karzai will in the end broker a compromise solution between the protagonists, who would have more to lose from a protracted standoff.
Billions of dollars have poured into the country since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, allowing businesses to prosper and a new class of elites to emerge. None stand to gain from a repeat of the bloody civil war that devasted the country in the 1990s and paved the way for the Taliban to seize power in 1996.
"This is all a carefully choreographed performance," said one foreign official.
Karzai's confidant added: "The president does not want to see an outright winner in the election but one who is dependent on Karzai to seek him for direction in all affairs." (Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan)