The Washington Post

In Afghanistan, Abdullah extends his lead over rival for presidency as ballot count continues

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah talks on the phone before an interview at his residence in Kabul on April 20, 2014. (Massoud Hossaini/AP)

More than a week after ballots were cast in Afghanistan’s presidential election, officials are still tabulating the results, but former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah has extended his lead to 11 percentage points over his closest challenger.

On Sunday, the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the results from 40 percent of the ballots. The updated figures show Abdullah leading with 44.4 percent of the vote compared to 33 percent for Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister.

Another former foreign minister, Zalmai Rassoul, regarded as outgoing President Hamid Karzai’s favored candidate, had about 10 percent of the vote.

With the United States and NATO scheduled to pull out most of their combat troops by the end of the year, the election is seen as essential to ensuring the stability of Afghanistan. It has been hailed as a success, having drawn an estimated 7 million voters to the polls on April 5, despite repeated attacks from Taliban insurgents.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters would meet in a runoff election this summer.

The vote counting has been slow as officials seek to collect and tally ballots from far-flung towns amid concerns about fraud and security. In Herat, the second-largest city after Kabul, tens of thousands of ballots thought to be fraudulent were being checked by the elections complaint commission, officials said Sunday.

Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, the IEC chief, said Sunday that final preliminary results are expected by May 14.

Before Sunday, Abdullah’s lead was just four percentage points based on the first 10 percent of ballots counted.

In recent days, Ghani and Abdullah have been traversing Kabul wooing the six other candidates in the race. If either can win the backing of their former rivals, that support could be used as leverage to try to muscle the other out of the race to try to avoid a runoff.

U.S. officials and other observers fear a runoff could spark another round of violence and complicate the transition between Karzai and his successor. Karzai, who is leaving office after two terms, has refused to sign a security agreement with the United States that would allow up to 15,000 foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan after this year.

Abdullah and Ghani both support the agreement, but some U.S. officials fear a protracted election campaign may not leave the Pentagon with enough time to prepare for its post-2014 mission.

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. An ophthalmologist by training, Abdullah 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. In the previous presidential election, Abdullah finished second to Karzai, then dropped out before the scheduled runoff, saying that the process was rigged.

Mohammad Sharif contributed to the report.

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