The Afghan presidential race is set for a June runoff between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, according to official results released Saturday. The preliminary tally showed Abdullah winning nearly 45% of the 6.9 million votes cast, and Ghani 31.5%. Election officials will examine hundreds of reports of voting irregularities before issuing final results on May 14, but the allegations didn’t appear widespread enough to change the results substantially — or to give Abdullah the absolute majority needed to avoid a runoff. The two men, both polished technocrats well known to the international community, had been regarded as the favorites in the April 5 election. Both have pledged to sign a security agreement that would allow some U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, a strategic priority for the Obama administration.
Abdullah’s margin was about 900,000 votes, but experts believe he could be at a disadvantage in the runoff due to his ethnic background, which is half Tajik. Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, may coalesce around Ghani, who is Pashtun.
Abdullah has tried to reach out to the other presidential candidates — all Pashtuns — to win endorsements that could push him over the top, but Afghanistan has not had a non-Pashtun leader in modern times.
Hamid Karzai, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third presidential term, has remained neutral in the election. Abdullah, who finished second to Karzai in the fraud-marred 2009 election, is one of the incumbent president’s harshest critics — particularly his combative stance toward the United States — and has signaled he would be a closer ally in the fight against the Taliban.