Abdullah takes early lead in Afghan presidential election

Partial Afghan election results put Abdullah Abdullah in the lead, but complaints of serious fraud are threatening the election's integrity. Ashraf Ghani is currently in second place. (Reuters)

— In the first partial results from Afghanistan’s presidential election, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah has emerged as the early leader, but he is far from crossing the 50 percent vote threshold needed to win outright, according to the country’s election commission.

Eight days after Afghans took to the polls, election officials are still counting votes and investigating claims of fraud. On Sunday, Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, the chief of the Independent Election Commission, announced the first official results, based on about 10 percent of the votes cast in 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Abdullah received 41.9 percent of those votes. The next closest candidate was Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank executive, with 37.6 percent. Zalmay Rassoul, a candidate who was considered the favorite of outgoing President Hamid Karzai, was running a distant third with 9.8 percent.

The results are far from definitive.

Nuristani said the totals represent more than 500,000 votes out of an estimated 7 million cast. In the coming days, officials intend to release the results piecemeal, with the final tally not coming until next month.

If the early indications bear out, the next step would be a runoff between the top two finishers — Abdullah and Ghani — although Afghan and Western officials have raised the possibility that the candidates could make a deal among themselves and avoid a second round of voting.

The contest, in Ghani’s mind, remains unsettled.

“Ten percent of the votes have been counted. It means so far we have played 10 minutes of a football game and another 90 minutes remain,” he told reporters.

In the previous presidential election, Abdullah finished second to Karzai, then dropped out before the scheduled runoff, saying that the process was unfair and rigged against him. This time, with Karzai unable to run because of term limits, Abdullah has emerged as the front-runner.

Abdullah, an ophthalmologist by training, had served as an aide to anti-Soviet guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Massoud and later as foreign minister during the early years of Karzai’s tenure. If he prevails, Abdullah would be the first ethnic Tajik to rule Afghanistan since 1996, when Burhanuddin Rabbani was driven out of Kabul by the Taliban.

Aiming to appeal to the widest possible constituency, Abdullah and the other presidential candidates have made campaign stops across the country and chosen running mates who cater to still-tense ethnic politics. One of Abdullah’s vice presidential nominees is Pashtun, a member of the country’s largest ethnic group, and the other belongs to the Hazara minority.

Ghani has enlisted the Uzbek warlord Abdurrashid Dostum and a Hazara candidate.

The next few weeks are likely to accelerate the political chess game, as losing candidates move to join stronger teams and new coalitions form. Both Abdullah and Ghani have been visiting Karzai in the presidential palace to discuss next steps, and Abdullah said his team is actively recruiting other candidates to support his campaign in the event of a runoff.

“I tell them, ‘We need your experience. We need your competence. We need your service for the country,’ ” Abdullah said in an interview.

Among U.S. and Western officials here, many would strongly prefer that there be no runoff election. They raise many concerns: the cost; the potential for Taliban violence; the uncertainty about the post-2014 American presence, with a delay in settling on a new president possibly leaving future U.S. troop numbers undecided for months. They suggest that Ghani and Abdullah could join forces to avoid a runoff, with one withdrawing from the race to serve in the other’s administration.

But the candidates, at this point, favor following the rules and carrying through with the election. Abdullah said that he would not consider such a scenario and that the only role Ghani would play in his presidency is as “loyal opposition.”

“If voters decide it should go to the second round, the people should be able to complete their verdict,” he said.

Ghani appeared to echo that sentiment at his news conference Sunday. “In a runoff, people should decide which of the two front-runners to elect,” he said.

Meanwhile, an election watchdog will be investigating allegations of fraud, which also could change the outcome. The organization said Sunday that 3,724 allegations of fraud have been reported, even more than in the 2009 election. The irregularities that year, when more than 1 million votes were invalidated, pushed Karzai below the 50 percent threshold needed to win in the first round and soured his relations with the Obama administration.

Both candidates in this race said the possibility of voter fraud remains a top concern.

“Today, getting the count right is our main focus,” Abdullah said.

The election commission “has not distinguished between fraudulent and clean votes,” Ghani said.

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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