(Reuters) - Controversial Bahraini Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa looks to have moved ahead in the AFC presidential race after a pivotal week saw the head of the powerful Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) give him public backing.
His closest rival, UAE football head Yousuf Al Serkal, is crying foul at what he perceives as OCA support ahead of the May 2 vote and believes the council is interfering in an election that has opened schisms within west Asian football.
Sheikh Salman unveiled details of his 'Asian United' manifesto earlier this week, but while he pushed his pledges to reporters in Manama, he also sidestepped a number of key questions about the bloody 2011 uprising.
OCA head Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah was unperturbed.
"I believe that he has the necessary leadership skills and vision to lead the AFC into a future of growth and prosperity," Sheikh Ahmad, also Kuwait Football Association honorary life president, said in a Kuwait FA statement earlier this week.
"As president (of the Kuwait FA) from 1991 to 2003 my focus has always been based on the fair and transparent improvement of our game both on and off the field of play," added the head of the OCA, which 'controls all the sports in Asia'.
Al Serkal, who is also running against Thailand's Worawi Makudi and Saudi Hafez Ibrahim Al Medlej, lashed out at the OCA and accused it of interfering in the election.
"They are trying hard to influence the voting," Al Serkal told reporters in Dubai earlier this month about the heavyweight support for his main rival. "If it was only (OCA chief) Sheikh Ahmad himself doing that on a personal level it would be OK.
"Anybody has the right to support one candidate or another, but since it has been done in an official way that's direct interference."
Manchester United supporter Sheikh Salman, whose key pledges are to battle corruption and matchfixing in Asia, flatly rejected the notion of interference.
"We should be more mature than that," he told Reuters in an interview in Manama. "We know that there are people supporting others and this happens in an election. If he wants to support me, he is free to support me.
"We should talk about the main issues rather than the other candidates. I think it's just a weak position if the candidate is talking about the others rather than what he is willing to do and his programme."
Last month, the OCA held meetings in Cambodia and Colombo to discuss with members how they will spend the $29.08 million they have been allocated for the next four years by the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Solidarity funding arm.
OCA influence is also believed to be behind the decision of acting AFC President Zhang Jilong to not stand in the elections.
The Chinese had assumed the temporary role in June 2011 after the infamous exit of former head Mohamed Bin Hammam - booted out by FIFA for vote buying and corruption - and was expected to stand in the elections after being routinely praised for his work by FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
"It was not a decision that I could make," Chinese newspaper Titan Sports quoted the 61-year-old Zhang as saying in March.
When Reuters asked the OCA why Zhang was not standing, a spokesman simply referred back to the Kuwait FA statement endorsing Sheikh Salman.
Zhang, nor the Chinese Football Association, responded to requests for comments on why he is not standing in the election.
'CHOICE IS CLEAR'
After unveiling his transparency manifesto in Dubai earlier this month, during which he promised he would declare all benefits and expenses accrued as president were he to win the vote, Al Serkal first complained about the OCA's involvement.
While Emirati Al Serkal also wants to introduce a whistleblower programme to encourage players to report irregularities, his relationship with axed Qatari Bin Hammam has been called into question as he bills himself a reformist.
"I keep friendship separate from work," Al Serkal said of the criticism. "Regardless of what allegations were taken against whomever from the AFC it did not touch me at all."
Both Al Serkal and Sheikh Salman have declared they are favourite to win the vote in Kuala Lumpur but both will face an uphill task to help the 47-member body recover from recent dark days of corruption.
"I think under my leadership we can be unified all together again and concentrate on football rather than on politics which has been happening for almost two years now," Al Serkal told Reuters last month.
"People who want to vote for the change, the choice is clear," Sheikh Salman said.
"I think for the last few years it has been like a roller-coaster up and down that the AFC has suffered. I think it's time to steer the ship to calmer waters. This is what I'd like to do."
(Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao in Beijing, Alan Baldwin in Manama, Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; Editing by Peter Rutherford)