Trailing candidates in Afghan election hold power in deciding next president

Some of the influential politicians who competed in Afghanistan’s recent — but still undecided — presidential election have begun to accept their failure to win. And with that acknowledgment, their power has grown.

It appears likely that the April 5 election will produce a runoff between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. That has left the six remaining candidates to decide whom they will endorse — a choice that could determine the next president.

Ghani and Abdullah have begun quests to garner that support, crisscrossing Kabul to recruit their former rivals and, with them, the voters whose loyalty they command. In a country still torn by ethnic and political tensions, coalition building is as crucial as it is delicate.

“They ask, and we will decide,” said candidate Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a former mujahideen leader who is not expected to win a significant portion of votes but wields significant power, particularly in traditional ethnic Pashtun communities.

For now, the public’s focus remains on the results of the first round and the Afghan election commission’s ability to resolve hundreds of formal complaints of fraud. The commission is due to assess those complaints and release official results in mid-May, and it’s unlikely a second round would take place for several weeks afterward.

But already, there are early signs that the six candidates are trying to come together as a single, powerful bloc. Earlier this week, they met as a group at Sayyaf’s office.

Publicly, each of the eight presidential candidates has expressed confidence that he might still win the election if fraud is eliminated. But several have quietly conceded that the race is between Ghani and Abdullah, and it’s now time to go about the complicated effort of choosing sides without causing harmful political orsocial rifts.

“Who we decide to support will be crucial,” said a top member of Zalmay Rassoul’s campaign team.

Those decisions are part of a larger effort to build a coalition that would resolve the election peacefully, either before or after an electoral runoff.

A runoff between the two top finishers is legally mandated if no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, an outcome that looks likely based on preliminary results. According to those results, gleaned from less than 10 percent of overall ballots, Abdullah received 41.9 percent of the vote and Ghani 37.6 percent. Rassoul had 9.8 percent to Sayyaf’s 5.1 percent.

But some Afghan officials are hopeful that either Ghani, a Pashtun, or Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik, could be convinced to drop out of the race before a runoff in exchange for a top position in the next government.

“Different people have been talking about a division of governing responsibility that would allow for a broader range of representation in the government,” said a Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

Some observers have suggested that the position of prime minister could be created for the candidate who bows out of the race.

“If we can by consensus avoid a second round, we will,” Sayyaf said. If a second round is held, he said, “the winner will be the driver, but we will all be in the bus.”

So far, both Ghani and Abdullah have publicly rejected the prospect of abandoning the race. Abdullah has said that if he is elected, the only position he could envision Ghani playing would be “loyal opposition.”

But Afghan and U.S. officials both say that avoiding a second round of voting would prevent the violence and unrest that is likely to accompany it, and many continue to root for such an outcome.

Another alternative, raised by Sayyaf and others, is convincing Ghani and Abdullah to agree in writing that the loser of a runoff would join the winner’s government, avoiding a potentially bloody post­-election standoff.

“A coalition would ensure that all Afghans are represented,” Sayyaf said. “Otherwise, the situation will go to the worst.”

Over the past decade, President Hamid Karzai has worked to create a diverse team that would win over voters as well as maintain stability in a country with deep ethnic fractures. Many Afghans objected to a government led by people from disparate backgrounds, appointed to maintain the balance of power, but even Western officials who are critical of Karzai express admiration for what they view as his feat of political acrobatics.

“Karzai spent a lot of time balancing different imperatives and different regional and ethnic demands on his government, and however the discussion evolves this time, it will be a big job for the next president as well,” the Western official said.

Many Afghans assume that any coalitions formed by the losing candidates will be structured along ethnic lines, with Sayyaf and Rassoul supporting Ghani, a fellow Pashtun. But key members of those candidates’ teams suggest that there is a strong possibility that Pashtun power brokers will side with Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik, in exchange for top positions in the next government.

Although Ghani is Pashtun, the presence of former communists such as Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum and Hanif Atmar on his team has upset former Pashtun mujahideen commanders, who spent years fighting against the Soviet Union.

“We have our problems with both sides,” said a senior Afghan official, one of many trying to decide whom to support.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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