Abdullah remains a favorite in urban areas and in the Persian-speaking north of the country. But should he win the runoff election, he has the potential to divide the country, says DW's Florian Weigand.
Seldom in the recent history of Afghanistan has a non-Pashtun made it to the top state ranks. Luck, it seems, has not been with them; the conservative King Habibullah, for example, who was lampooned as the "son of a water carrier," was only in power for less than a year at the end of the 1920s before he was executed. And Burhanuddin Rabbani was Afghan president when the country became engulfed by a civil war after the retreat of Soviet forces. No wonder, then, that so many Afghans think only Pashtuns can reliably run the country.
Afghanistan is made up of a mosaic of different ethnicities. Among them, Pashtuns make up the majority in government, and are dominant in the south - while in the north of the country, the majority is made up of Persian-speaking Tajiks. Wouldn't it be nice if Abdullah Abdullah - a person who is open to the West, as well as being a member of the country's second-largest ethnic group - could be elected president, especially seeing how he grew up in a mixed Pashtun-Tajik household? He would be a democratically elected representative of integration - not because of his family tree, but because of his policies and personality. Afghanistan has a long and deep-rooted history of storytelling. But often, reality goes by different rules.
The specter of unavoidable ethnic identity is as alive now as ever before. Despite his mixed family background, Abdullah - who won 44.9 percent of the total vote - is seen as a Tajik from the north by most. His entire political biography has been characterized by this. He is the most important still-living politician of the so-called Northern Alliance, which fought against the Taliban. According to the independent election commission, Abdullah received more than 80 percent of votes in some parts of the country's north.
In certain purely Pashtun areas in the south and east, however, he received barely more than 3 percent. The hope that Afghans would cast their votes based on a candidate's policies only came to fruition in the larger cities. Abdullah so far has not been able to convince most rural Pashtuns.
The sum of all votes that went to ethnic other Pashtun candidates in the first round of polls was more than the number of votes that went to Abdullah. Ashraf Ghani, who won 31.5 percent of the total vote, will seek to gain all Pashtun votes for himself in the runoff election. And Abdullah is aware of this; reports have started emerging that he has initiated talks for an alliance with the number-three candidate, the Pashtun Salmai Rassul, who received 11.5 percent of the vote.
Win over all
Should Abdullah come out on top in the second round of voting, he would be well-advised to make Pashtuns feel at home. Abdullah must fight against the impression many Afghans have that he only represents the north of the country and the large cities. In urban areas such as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, Pashtuns and Tajiks have lived next door to each other, married each other and had a unique Afghan identity for generations.
Rich in natural gas and with a relatively stable security situation, the north is the nation's potential economic motor. But the south must not be allowed to become the country's Taliban-tainted reject.
That would have fatal consequences for the country's foreign policy, and thus for the stability of the entire region. In neighboring Pakistan, Abdullah does not enjoy the best reputation, and he looks to the politics of Islamabad with a critical eye as well. Pakistan could become tempted to use resentments against Abdullah to its advantage - for influence in Afghanistan.
It would be fatal if the West were to turn a blind eye to this. Only a government in Kabul that is supported by the majority of Afghans in the north as well as in the south, and whose standing is recognized in the region, would be able to create stability that would allow the West to end its ISAF deployment at the end of the year with a lighter heart.