Abdullah Abdullah

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, center, leaves after a news conference Thursday in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghan voters will return to the polls next month to choose a successor to outgoing President Hamid Karzai, whose refusal to sign a deal permitting U.S. troops to stay beyond the end of the year has raised security concerns as the Taliban press their deadly campaign of bombings and attacks.

Massoud Hossaini | AP

KABUL — Afghanistan’s presidential election last month produced no outright winner, authorities announced Thursday, forcing a June 14 runoff between two pro-Western front-runners who both favor signing a long-delayed security pact with Washington.

The formation of a new government based on the second round’s results will mark the first peaceful transition of power in Afghan history through the ballot. An orderly handover is also considered crucial for the stability of Afghanistan after decades of warfare.

Announcing the final results of the April 5 presidential vote, Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, chairman of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, said Thursday that no single candidate among eight contenders won the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who could not run for re-election because of a term limit.

“None of the candidates secured 51 percent, and the election will go into a second round,” Nuristani said. He said more than 7 million Afghans — about 58 percent of the country’s 12 million registered voters — turned out to cast ballots, despite threats from Taliban insurgents to attack polling places or punish those who participated in the election. He said 36 percent of the participating voters were women.

Final results showed that former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who became a top opposition leader during Karzai’s tenure, received 45 percent of the vote, short of a majority.

In the runoff, Abdullah will face Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank economist, who came in second with 31.6 percent of the vote.

A national survey conducted in mid-March by Kabul-based ACSOR-Surveys found a virtual dead heat in a potential runoff between Abdullah and Ghani, driven by ethnic and regional divisions. But more than seven in 10 Afghans in the poll said they are ready to accept the eventual winner as the country’s legitimate leader.

Both men will have a three-week campaign period before the June 14 runoff, Nuristani said, with final results to be announced by July 2.

Ghani said Thursday that he welcomes the runoff. “We accept the result of the first round and are fully prepared to refer to the valorous, Muslim and brave Afghan people to freely decide” which candidate they want as president, he said. He has promised to crack down on corruption and end what he has called a culture of impunity in Afghanistan.

Abdullah also accepted the first-round results, telling a news conference, “God willing, the victory will be of our team’s.”

Want national unity

Abdullah and Ghani both said they want national unity in Afghanistan.

Security threats, stemming mostly from Taliban attacks and possible ethnic tensions, are regarded as main challenges to the process. Ethnic Pashtuns, who make up 42 percent of Afghanistan’s population, have traditionally ruled Afghanistan and hold most top government posts, but they also form the bulk of the Taliban insurgency. Ethnic Tajiks account for the second-largest share of the Afghan population, 27 percent, and have been a key bulwark against the Taliban since the radical Islamist group was formed in the 1990s.

Abdullah, a 53-year-old former ophthalmologist of mixed Pashtun-Tajik parentage, was a close friend and adviser of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik commander who was assassinated in September 2001 and whose U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forces captured Kabul from the Taliban two months later. Ghani, 65, is an ethnic Pashtun from the influential Ahmadzai tribe who finished fourth in the 2009 presidential election.

Zalmay Rassoul, widely considered Karzai’s favored candidate, came in third in last month’s voting, with 11.4 percent of the vote. He recently threw his support to Abdullah, as did Gul Agha Sherzai, another candidate, boosting Abdullah’s position for the second round.

Delay in security pact

The runoff means that Karzai will remain in office for several additional weeks. Under the Afghan constitution, he can remain in charge until his successor is elected. It also means further delay in inking the security pact that Washington wanted to have in place by the end of 2013.

Both Ghani and Abdullah are viewed as moderate and have pledged to work with the United States to keep up pressure on the Taliban insurgents. They have also said they would sign a bilateral security deal with the United States that allows a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond a deadline to withdraw combat troops by the end of this year. Karzai has refused to sign the accord, insisting on leaving it to his successor.

The April 5 election was hailed as a major success for Afghanistan because millions of people came out to vote despite the Taliban threats. The insurgents had staged deadly attacks during previous elections held since they were ousted from power in 2001.

The Taliban did not launch large-scale attacks on the election day, but insurgents staged a series of high-profile assaults in the run-up to the polls, including two on key Election Commission offices in Kabul.

Nuristani urged Afghans to come out and vote again in the runoff.

Abdullah refused to go into a second round against Karzai after Afghanistan’s August 2009 presidential election was marred but what independent observers said was widespread electoral fraud in favor of the incumbent.

Nuristani said Election Commission staffers who were involved in fraud in last month’s voting will be removed from their positions and prosecuted to make sure the runoff is clean.

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