The preliminary results of Afghanistan’s historical presidential elections were announced on Saturday, bringing a few surprises and raising a lot of questions.
The elections were widely hailed as a great triumph, a rejection of the Taliban and a longing for a democratic future. Close to seven million ballots were cast out of a voter pool of approximately 13 million.
But according to the country’s Independent Election Commission, no candidate gathered enough votes for a first round victory.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, ophthalmologist turned warlord turned politician, has a comfortable lead with 44.9 percent, followed by former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai with 31.5 percent.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the two top candidates will face off on June 7.
That presupposes that the Election Commission can wade through the thousands of complaints received after the April 5 ballot and investigate the validity of up to half a million votes.
Now that a runoff is all but certain, the real test begins: A second round of voting is likely to aggravate ethnic, regional and historical tensions within an already fragile society.
This is new, uncharted territory for Afghanistan.
In the last election, incumbent Hamid Karzai insisted that he had won outright in the first round despite massive fraud that resulted in more than 1.3 million votes being thrown out. He was finally coaxed into a runoff by then-Senator John Kerry and was set to face Abdullah in a second round of voting.
But Abdullah withdrew, saying that he had no expectation that an honest ballot could be conducted.
So no one is really certain about what to expect this time around.
The Election Commission says it is ready, but the June 7 date is already almost two weeks later than the legal limit: According to Afghanistan’s constitution, the runoff must be held within two weeks of the announcement of certified results, which are due out on May 14.
Complicating matters is the fact that Karzai’s term expires on May 22.
What happens, or who will govern the country between that date and the time when a new president can be sworn in, has yet to be determined.
A lot will depend on how the candidates comport themselves in the tense period between the votes.
Both Abdullah and Ghani have voiced dissatisfaction over the way election officials have conducted the poll.
“Organized fraudulent elections will not be acceptable to us,” said Abdullah to TOLO News, a leading Afghan television station. “We are seriously concerned about the election commissions’ actions and government meddling in the process.”
Even a cursory look at voting patters reveals deep regional and ethnic divisions within the society.
In the northeastern province of Panjshir, for example, Abdullah got almost 90 percent of the votes, while Ghani barely moved the needle. In the south, Abdullah didn’t fare as well — in Kandahar, he got just above 10 percent of the votes.
The bulk of the votes went to Pashtun leaders like Zalmay Rassoul and Gul Agha Sherzai, a former governor of the province.
According to conventional wisdom, only a Pashtun can win a national election.
Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, making up more than 40 percent of the population, followed by Tajiks with approximately 27 percent, Hazaras and Uzbeks with 9 percent each, and several other smaller groups.
But Abdullah’s strong showing just might turn the conventional wisdom on its head.
Abdullah claims a joint heritage, with a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother. But he is much more widely identified as Tajik given his close association with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance.
Abdullah was Massoud’s spokesperson during the long and bloody years of Afghanistan’s civil war. It was the conflict in the 1990s, following the withdrawal of the Soviet troops that left the deepest scars on Afghanistan’s collective memory. The country was divided among different armed groups, largely split along ethnic lines.
But while Abdullah may be a problematic choice for many Pashtuns, he is unquestionably Afghan.
The same cannot be said of his rival Ashraf Ghani who is technically a Pashtun but spent the greater part of his professional life in the West.
Ghani left Afghanistan in 1977, attended Columbia University, worked at the World Bank, and did not return to his native country until after the US-led invasion in 2001. He was at the time a US citizen. He did not give up his American passport until his failed bid for the presidency in 2009.
Afghans are justly proud of Ghani; he is brilliant, if famously irascible, and was the architect of the current monetary system when he worked as finance minister in 2002-2004. Since 2011 he has also served as the head of the Transition Process, which oversees the transfer of responsibility for security from the international forces to the Afghan government.
But Ghani did not share the triumph and tragedy of the jihad against the Soviets — he was not part of the heartbreak of the civil war. Ghani rightly boasts that his hands are free of blood but he was not in the country during the times when it was all but impossible to keep one’s hands clean.
Between now and the runoff, the candidates with smaller vote counts could play the kingmakers. Abdullah is in talks with the other candidates, seeking to form some sort of coalition. Right after the first partial results were announced, he sought out the third-place candidate, Zalmay Rassoul, an ethnic Pashtun.
“I will not go into the details of it but you can imagine that at this stage we are not talking about the weather or leisure," he told Reuters at the time.
If Rassoul joins forces with Abdullah, he may bring him over the 50 percent plus one threshold necessary to beat Ghani.
Both Abdullah and Ghani are seen as a step forward for the country. The test will be whether either of them can bridge enormous ethnic and regional divides to forge a unified Afghanistan.