None of the eight candidates contesting the April 5 election surpassed the 50 percent-plus-one mark needed for a first-round victory, the country's Independent Election Commission (IEC) said on Thursday, May 15, after delaying the announcement for a day due to fraud investigations. Abdullah (R) finished top with 45 percent of the vote, followed by Ghani (L) with 31.6 percent. Zalmay Rassoul came in third with 11.4 percent. Abdullah and Ghani are now set to compete in a second round runoff due on June 14.
The internationally praised first round of the elections marked a historic day for Afghanistan with a voter turnout of 7 million voters despite Taliban threats to disrupt the electoral process. Sixty-four per cent of the voters were men and 36 per cent women, according to the ICE.
Nearly a quarter million ballots from 525 polling stations were annulled due to fraud, compared to 1.3 million annulled votes in the 2009 election.
The runoff will determine who will become the successor of Hamid Karzai who was constitutionally bound to step down as the Afghanistan's president after more than 12 years in power.
But the vote also comes at a crucial time as most foreign troops prepare to leave the conflict-ridden country by the end of the year.
Abdullah - The anti-Taliban
For front-runner Abdullah Abdullah, these elections may seem like a déjà-vu. The politician and medical doctor had run as a presidential candidate in 2009 and made it to the runoff where he faced Karzai. However, he refused to contest the second round due to allegations of electoral fraud. Abdullah has been in the opposition for many years and is a prominent former member of the Northern Alliance which fought alongside the USA in 2001 to oust the then Taliban-led regime from power.
Abdullah's close relationship with the late Northern Alliance's leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, has helped him win a broad support base. "In a country where many people are fed up with the Taliban's violence, Abdullah's Northern Alliance association is very attractive," says Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, adding that this would make the 53-year-old politician more hesitant to pursue peace talks with the insurgents.
In a recent DW interview, Abdullah himself stated that while he was open for talks, he was "not prepared to compromise to please a small number of militants." But according to Kugelman, this hesitation could also become a liability for the presidential candidate, given the reality of an Afghan population desperate for peace.
Strengths and weaknesses
Analysts argue Abdullah's core strength lies in his statesmanship. As a former foreign minister, he has the diplomatic experience which may become essential to work together with neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran, but also to improve ties with Washington.
But Abdullah's affiliation with the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance has also had its drawbacks. The former foreign minister is seen by many as the candidate of the north and the big cities, leading to a lack of support in the Pashtun-dominated south of country.
Hence, it is widely believed that Abdullah will have to rely on the support of Pashtun candidates who didn't make it to the second round, if he is to win the upcoming runoff. The 53-year-old has already obtained the endorsement of former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul, a Pashtun and close ally of Hamid Karzai and Gul Agha Sherzoy, another Pashtun candidate. Analysts view this Rassoul's support as a potential game-changer. "Rassoul had placed third in the initial round of elections, so Abdullah can certainly plan on gaining the votes of many of his supporters," said Kugelman.
Ghani – the modernizer
Abdullah will be facing Ashraf Ghani in the runoff, a technocrat who massively expanded his support base in this election, given that he only received 3 percent of the vote back in 2009. His academic background and alliances with popular tribal and religious leaders have proved to attract a lot of voters in the first round of elections.
Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun and therefore represents the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, but the 65-year-old doesn't rely solely on this ethnical background. Many argue his main strength lies in his economic expertise. Ghani worked as a World Bank economist for a number of years, and has been involved in research projects on failed states.
In a DW interview, Ghani made clear he was determined to tackle corruption and establish good governance. "Everything is inextricably linked and is part of a vicious circle," he told DW. "We believe that good governance can lead Afghanistan to prosperity and will break the cycle of violence."
Moreover, "Ghani is not as polarizing as Abdullah," says Kugelman, arguing that "while Abdullah is a politician associated with the Northern Alliance, Ghani is essentially a long-time bureaucrat and economist."
Such neutrality can provide a big boost, but it also can be seen as a bad thing by many Afghans who resent the fact that Ghani was far away in Washington during Afghanistan's most difficult years. All the more surprising was his alliance with the former warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ghani's first vice presidential candidate which seemingly disillusioned many of his supporters.
"Additionally, Ghani is rumored to be a mercurial personality and to have a nasty temper," says Kugelman. Such a volatile personality may remind some Afghans and also officials in Washington, of the unpopular Karzai during the last few months of his presidency.
Alliances are key
Like Abdullah, Ghani has also been seeking endorsements from eliminated presidential candidates. This is decisive for the runoff, says Nils Wörmer, head of the German foundation Konrad-Adenauer- Stiftung's Kabul office.
Although both Ghani and Abdullah have prominent profiles and enjoy national recognition neither is strong enough to win a national election without catering to more sub-national considerations, most especially ethnicity, says Kugelman. That's why alliances will be the determining factor of these elections.
"Both Ghani and Abdullah have known this from the start, as they have sought to put politicians representing different ethnic groups on their tickets." Nils Wörmer shares view and warns against writing Ghani off based on the results of the first round. "Not only alliances, but the candidates' actual ability to mobilize voters will be an important factor for winning the elections," he told DW.
Technically, there is still the possibility of an agreement between the two candidates to form a coalition government which would render a runoff obsolete. The candidates' agree on key issues such as signing a Bilateral Security Agreement with the US, strengthening the economy and fighting corruption. However, the formation of a coalition government seems increasingly unlikely given the candidate's determination to face off in the head-to-head poll on June 14.