The Victorian Labor Party agreed to lobby for the interests of the African community in exchange for vital preferences that will help its candidate beat the Greens in tomorrow’s state byelection, the African candidate has claimed.

Berhan Ahmed — a former Labor party member who switched to the Greens but quit the party after running in the 2004 Senate race — said on the sidelines of a Jon Faine-hosted ABC Radio Melbourne election debate this morning that he had presented a three-point wishlist of policy reforms to state Labor president Cath Bowtell during preference negotiations.

“It was about more funding for the community, it was about setting up a federal ministerial advisory committee from the local community, and an employment strategy for the whole community,” Ahmed said. “This is about putting the local people on the map.”

His how-to-vote cards backing Labor — lodged with the Victorian Electoral Commission on July 13 — placed Labor’s Jennifer Kanis at No. 7 and the Greens’ Cathy Oke at No. 8.

Ahmed is currently chairman of Africa Think Tank, a well-regarded community group lobbying for the interests of African-Australians. The too-close-to-call poll will be decided on his preferences and those of 13 other minor party candidates, which marginally favour the Labor Party. The community leader could garner up to 5% of the vote in the byelection with strong support drawn from Flemington public housing tenants.

Ken Betts, a former Liberal candidate and Ahmed’s campaign manager, says Bowtell had promised to use “her networking skills within the party” to make sure the plan would be enacted, adding he won’t be surprised if Labor broke its promise after the fact.

But Bowtell firmly rejected any suggestion of a quid-pro-quo arrangement this morning, saying she made it clear she was “not in a position to offer him anything”.

“We had a lot of discussion about his concerns about how his community was faring … about housing, about crime, a range of things that he is right to be concerned about … but I was clear that I was not in a position to promise him anything.

“What I did say is that people in Labor empathised with his position.”

Bowtell agrees she said she was “happy to talk to people about” Ahmed’s concerns within the Labor Party.

The Ahmed preference saga has been bubbling for weeks. On July 12 a story appeared in The Age quoting a “Labor dossier” accusing him of being a “Greens stooge”. His how-to-vote card — actually preferencing Labor — was lodged the next day.

Crikey called Betts back to clarify his stance this morning. He says he had an interim discussion with Bowtell — and maintains the rage.

“Labor has done a reverse backflip, they’re moved 180 degrees … if I’m apologising I don’t know what for. I said to Cath: ‘what am I supposed to be sorry about?’ They’re running scared. I don’t care what they throw out there now.”

But if Labor has annoyed the Ahmed campaign, Betts has been active behind the scenes pushing Labor’s line about the Greens.

A last-minute shit sheet war has escalated in recent days with a mysterious pamphlet popping up in North Carlton letterboxes trumpeting how Ahmed, Liberal independent David Nolte and Family First’s Ashley Fenn were backing Labor and urging voters to put the Greens last. The sheet was authorised by Betts.

A Labor Left source told Crikey that Ahmed had in fact stumped for Kanis because “the ALP always stood with the African community, John Brumby did, Steve Bracks did and Lindsay Tanner did. This is not a deal, this is about which party will better serve the community.” Tanner has been a vocal advocate for the African community and was touch with Ahmed in the days after his nomination.

Independent candidate Stephen Mayne, who is preferencing the Greens, says the rancour over preferences could end if the state moved to adopt optional preferential voting in the same manner as Queensland and New South Wales.