KABUL - Afghanistan’s presidential election is set to go to a second round between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani after no candidate won an absolute majority, preliminary results showed on Saturday.
Abdullah finished top with 44.9 percent, followed by Ghani with 31.5 percent, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said. Zalmay Rassoul, also a former foreign minister, was a distant third with 11.5 percent.
“This is a preliminary outcome and will now go to the Independent Election Complaints Commission and they will work on this. As soon as they share their findings with us we will also announce it,” IEC chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani told reporters.
The final result is due to be announced on May 14. In the meantime, authorities will investigate allegations of fraud involving up to half a million ballots.
It is unlikely, however, that Abdullah could be pushed to the 50 percent-plus-one required for victory if the suspect votes are cleared and included in the count.
“We have a tentative schedule of June 7 to start the second round,” Nuristani said.
The April 5 election was widely seen as a success. Around 7 million of an eligible 12 million voters braved the threat of Taliban attacks to cast ballots in what will be the first democratic transition of power in their country’s history.
Amid concerns that voter turnout will not be as high in the run-off as it was on April 5, both Abdullah and Ghani have dismissed suggestions that they strike a deal to avert a second round. They have said the democratic process should be completed, a sentiment echoed by the country’s Western allies.
The UN envoy to Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, applauded the election. “The Afghan electoral institutions should be commended for their work to make the process more transparent than ever before,” he said in a statement. Some observers said they could see the merit of a deal to swiftly move on with the political transition, though there were doubts that Abdullah and Ghani would want to work together.
“We’re seeing intense discussions among the most powerful men in Kabul,” said Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG).
“I would be astounded if Abdullah and Ghani set aside their profound differences and cut a deal, but this is a season of surprises in Afghanistan.”
There are also concerns about security and cost. The first round was funded by Washington, at more than $100 million. Repeating the process in which some ballot boxes are carried by donkey to and from remote regions means it could be July before a new president is officially declared.
As the incremental release of preliminary results made it clear that Abdullah would not secure an outright victory, the leading candidates began lobbying in anticipation of a run-off.
Third-placed candidate Rassoul, long a confidante of Karzai, and Islamist politician Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, who finished fourth with 7.1 percent, are emerging as the kingmakers.
Access to Rassoul’s support base is seen as crucial as he is believed to have the backing of the powerful Karzai clan. Both Ghani and Abdullah have promised an advisory role for the outgoing president.
“Sayyaf is a wild card,” said the ICG’s Smith. The conservative Islamic scholar fought the Soviet occupation and was once close to Osama bin Laden.
“He showed surprising strength in the campaign and his voting bloc is likely to remain more coherent in a second round than the coalition that stood behind Rassoul - which gives Sayyaf some bargaining power as he sits down with the Abdullah and Ghani camps,” Smith said.
Abdullah, an ophthalmologist who also fought Soviet forces in the 1980s, has already reached out to Rassoul. Ghani’s camp has refused to detail its behind-the-scenes negotiations. Sources close to Rassoul told Reuters they had met Abdullah and envisaged the two sides working well together on foreign policy matters and the peace process with the Taliban.
5 Nato troops killed
Five troops were killed Saturday in a British military helicopter crash in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence in London said, with the cause of the incident under investigation.
The identities of those on board have yet to be confirmed, though sources said they are all thought be to British service personnel. The crash in southern Afghanistan is the largest single loss of life for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) since a US helicopter crashed in December after being hit in a Taliban insurgent attack. “The MoD can confirm that a UK helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan today,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The incident is under investigation and it would be inappropriate to comment further until families have been notified.” ISAF said five troops had died in the crash, while it was “reviewing the circumstances to determine more facts”. The ISAF statement did not name the province where the crash occurred and made no reference to whether any insurgents were active in the area.
But local officials in southern Afghanistan told AFP the helicopter came down in volatile Kandahar and was not attacked by militants. “A helicopter belonging to NATO troops has crashed in Takhta Pul, Kandahar province,” said Zia Durrani, the provincial police spokesman. “It was doing military exercises and crashed as a result of technical fault.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility from insurgents. Six US troops were killed in the December attack when a Blackhawk chopper went down in the southern province of Zabul. Immediately after that crash, US officers suggested the helicopter had come down due to a mechanical failure but that the crew may then have come under fire. Officials later said that Taliban militants brought down the aircraft. Aircraft crashes have been a regular risk for the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, with troops relying heavily on air transport to battle the Taliban insurgency across the south and east of the country.
NATO troop movements have fallen sharply over the last year as soldiers withdraw from the 13-year war. From a peak of 150,000 in 2012, about 51,000 troops — 33,500 of them from the United States — now remain in Afghanistan. Britain currently has around 5,200 troops in the country, making it the second-largest ISAF contributor. All NATO combat forces are due to pull out by the end of December.
If all five on board the helicopter are confirmed to be British service personnel, it would take the number of British troops killed in operations in Afghanistan above 450. Before the crash, 448 British troops had been killed since operations began in October 2001.
The deadliest incident was in September 2006, when all 14 British personnel on board a Nimrod surveillance aircraft were killed in a crash caused by a leaking fuel pipe. Since 2001, 3,436 members of the US-led military mission have died in Afghanistan according to the independent icasualties website, including those killed in Saturday’s crash.