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Afghan Election: First Round Or Nothing For Abdullah

Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah hold posters of him during an election rally in Parwan Province on March 20.
Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah hold posters of him during an election rally in Parwan Province on March 20.
KABUL -- It's often said that slow and steady wins the race. But that's not the case for Abdullah Abdullah, who needs a quick and decisive victory if he hopes to emerge as Afghanistan's next president.

Afghanistan's complex ethnic politics likely mean that Abdullah must secure a first-round win -- requiring more than 50 percent of the vote on April 5 -- because he would struggle to win any second-round matchup.

This is because of the nine remaining candidates, Abdullah stands as the exception. He is a mixed ethnic Tajik and Pashtun, while the other eight are Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

Despite his mixed ethnicity, Abdullah is seen by many Afghans as a Tajik. That has come as a result of his past prominence in the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance as well as his close relationship with the anti-Taliban group's slain ex-leader, Ahmad Shah Masud, a revered ethnic Tajik.

Dr. Abdullah, as he is commonly known, and his supporters express confidence that they can bring home an outright victory. But observers are pessimistic.

Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, says it would be a "freak result" if Abdullah -- or any other candidate for that matter -- were to score a first-round victory.

Fighting For The Pashtun Vote

Among the other front-runners are former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasul, who enjoys the backing of outgoing President Hamid Karzai. Abdullah leads in the latest opinion polls, with about a third of the vote. Ghani, who has gained momentum in recent weeks, is running a close second, while Rasul is a distant third.

"There are three strong candidates and none are clearly stronger than the other," Van Bijlert says. "Practically, I think it's almost impossible -- if we look at the numbers -- of claiming a first-round win. It would be a strange result."
Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah shakes hands with his supporters during an election campaign in Kabul.
Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah shakes hands with his supporters during an election campaign in Kabul.

Abdullah is widely expected to win a majority of the ethnic Tajik vote, although Karzai's recent appointment of a prominent Tajik, Yunus Qanooni, as first vice president could bring some Tajik votes to Rasul.

But seeing as Tajiks only account for about 27 percent of Afghanistan's population, Abdullah has focused on Pashtun votes as his best chance of earning a first-round win.

In a break from his 2009 presidential campaign, Abdullah has campaigned aggressively in the Pashtun-dominated south and east of the country, often braving persistent security threats. Several of his campaigners have been killed after rallies. Abdullah has also talked up his Pashtun heritage and named a Pashtun -- Mohammad Khan, a senior member of the Hizb-e Islami party -- as his first-vice-presidential running mate.

But Van Bijlert says Abdullah, a qualified eye surgeon, faces an uphill battle to sway Pashtuns because many still see him primarily as an ethnic Tajik. Some have even accused Abdullah of fabricating his Pashtun heritage, leading the former foreign minister to provide proof of his upbringing and bloodline.

"All the candidates have tried to present themselves as candidates for the whole of Afghanistan. Abdullah is no different," she says. "He's stressed that he's half Pashtun and he's also campaigned in the south. He's really working on [swaying Pashtun voters], but politically he is seen as a northerner and a Tajik. It's very hard to shake that impression."

Fighting An Unseen Opponent

The election dynamic could change dramatically for Abdullah should he receive high-profile support from Pashtun leaders. Amid the current behind-the-scenes election horse-trading, rumors have emerged that Abdullah could team up with rival presidential candidate Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Pashtun and powerful former warlord. Another candidate that been touted as a potential partner is Gul Agha Sherzai, another powerful former warlord who hails from southern Afghanistan. Observers, however, say the unions are unlikely.

Van Bijlert says Abdullah's attempt to secure Pashtun votes is a multilayered challenge and not simply a matter of Abdullah persuading Pashtuns that he is the best candidate. She says there are other variables that all candidates face and that will shape the outcome, including how many Pashtuns will be able to vote due to insecurity, who will be able to manipulate the vote through fraud, and how the electoral bodies will deal with the vote-rigging. In the end, it's anybody's guess how many votes will be left, particularly in the insecure areas.

Abdullah has often referred to electoral fraud as his "biggest competitor." In 2009, the 53-year-old surprised many by emerging from a crowded field as the only serious challenger to President Karzai. Abdullah finished second with just under 31 percent of the vote, forcing a disputed second round that Karzai won amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging in his favor.

The loss was a bitter pill to swallow for Abdullah's supporters. Four years later, many fear history will repeat itself. "The only reason Abdullah lost in 2009 [and could lose this election] is because of massive vote-rigging," says Ahmad Wali, who lives in Khayer Khana, a predominately Tajik neighborhood in Kabul. "There was a lot of fraud committed in the south. Boxes stuffed with fraudulent votes came from all over Afghanistan. Some fraudulent votes even arrived from Afghan refugees living in neighboring Pakistan."

Asadullah is a restaurant owner in Taimani, another predominately Tajik neighborhood in Kabul. He remains confident that Abdullah will win this time around. But he admits it might again be out of Abdullah's hands. "I think the Afghan people's votes will go to Dr. Abdullah, the fraudulent votes will go to Ashraf Ghani, and the votes of Western powers will go to Zalmai Rasul," he says.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.