U.S. Ally Abdullah Leads as Runoff Looms in Afghanistan

Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, a U.S. ally, finished first in preliminary results in Afghanistan’s presidential race while not getting enough votes to avoid a run-off election, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan said.

Abdullah won 45 percent of the vote in the eight-candidate contest earlier this month while former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai tallied 31.5 percent, Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, the IEC’s chairman, told reporters in Kabul yesterday. The results indicate “that elections would go into the second round” between the two top contenders, he said.

Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has delayed signing a pact needed to keep U.S. troops in the war-torn country beyond this year and secure billions of dollars in pledged aid funds. Both Abdullah, an opponent of Karzai for a decade, and Ghani vowed to sign the agreement immediately after taking office, calling it crucial for Afghanistan’s stability.

The election was hailed as a success by Afghan officials and foreign allies after Taliban guerrillas failed to disrupt it. About 7 million Afghans – 65 percent male and 35 percent female, Nuristani said -- defied Taliban threats of violence to cast ballots, double the turnout of the previous election in 2009. About 12 million Afghans were eligible to vote.

A run-off is required because no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, though it can be avoided if a power-sharing deal is struck between top candidates, according to the IEC. The run-off is expected on June 7, IEC said.

Fraud Complaints

The two top finishers have vowed to continue the race, saying they wouldn’t seek to form a coalition government.

No talks were held with any candidate on forming “a coalition government,” Abdullah told reporters in Kabul on April 24. Ghani previously made similar comments.

Among other candidates in the April 5 election, former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul got 11.5 percent of the vote and former parliament member Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf 7 percent.

The final official results for the first round are to be made public on May 14 after an investigation of hundreds of fraud complaints to the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission. Allegations include fake voting cards, ballot stuffing, shortage of forms and pressure from political people to vote for certain candidates.

Abdullah, 53, is half Pashtun and half Tajik. As foreign minister under Karzai, he was a close aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood, a Tajik ethnic seen by many Afghans as a national hero. They fought together against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. Suicide bombers killed Masood two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in 2001 that led to U.S. action in Afghanistan.

Columbia Graduate

Ghani, 64, is a Pashtun who served as Afghan’s finance minister from 2002-2004 and finished fourth in the 2009 election. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in New York, and led a commission in charge of transferring security operations from the U.S.-led coalition to Afghan forces.

Pashtuns account for 42 percent of Afghanistan’s 32 million people, while Tajiks make up 27 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. Uzbeks and Hazaras each account for 9 percent, and other groups comprise the rest, it says.

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