KABUL -- It may be weeks before results of Afghanistan's April 5 presidential election are announced, but the behind-the-scenes horse trading among the three leading contenders appears to be well under way.
Abdullah Abdullah kicked off what is expected to be a protracted period of deal-making when he revealed that he has met with rival candidate Zalmai Rasul about the possibility of Rasul throwing his support behind Abdullah in any second round. Rasul, like Abdullah a former foreign minister, is considered a distant third in the race.
There has even been speculation that some sort of a deal might be struck behind closed doors to avoid a runoff, although such a scenario would be unconstitutional.
Abdullah indicated he was exploring the possibility of teaming up with Rasul.
"We have been in the same government in the old days. We have been friends for many years," Abdullah said in an interview with Reuters on April 9. "So that is the personal part of it. The rest of it depends on the common understanding of certain subjects and certain policies. So I will say that he will be one of the people that one can work with. That is in theory. But in practice we have not [been in those] areas during our discussions."
No Second Round In 2009
Partial results that have been accumulated by Afghan news organizations suggest that no candidate is likely to win the first round outright with more than 50 percent of the national vote. In that case, a second round runoff will be held in late May, significantly delaying the wait for the announcement of a final winner.
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Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, currently lead in partial, unofficial tallies. Preliminary results from the first round are not expected until April 24; official results aren't likely to be announced before May 14, meaning that there is likely to be a long period of deal-making, debate, and disputes until a new leader is eventually sworn in. That's unlikely before July at the earliest.
Although a secret deal to avoid a runoff is unconstitutional, there is precedence.
In the 2009 election, current President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah advanced to a second round. But Abdullah pulled out of a second round after protracted negotiations that included mediators from the United States. Publicly, he said he was standing down because he believed the contest would not be fair. The vote was marred by widespread allegations of fraud in favor of the incumbent.
Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, notes that all kinds of scenarios are possible.
"A deal to avoid a second round would not be according to the procedures, but they could improvise it," she says. "It wouldn't necessarily be illegal and if everybody agreed to it, it could happen."
Van Bijlert says part of the reason candidates might not want a second round is because they do not want to leave the outcome up to the whim of voters and the vagaries of a fledgling democratic process. She says there is also reluctance for a second round because of the instability it could cause and the high cost it would entail.
'Get Rid Of Deal-Making'
Such a scenario does not go down well with some voters.
Rahimullah, a resident of Kabul, calls any secret brokering illegal and undemocratic.
"Nobody likes a government as a result of deal-making," he says. "We Afghans voted this year so we could get rid of any deal-making. This is my view and the views of many other people."
Afghan women arrive to cast ballots at a polling station in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on April 5.
The three front-runners, all of whom have said they are confident of winning, have publicly said they will resist any deal-making and will contest a second round.
Ghani has repeatedly said Afghan voters should not be deprived of the chance to have their voices heard, saying, "There has to be a clear winner."
Abdullah has also said the public's choice should be respected and has ruled out forging any kind of backroom deal.
"The team which will govern Afghanistan will not be an exclusive team,” he told Reuters. "The inclusiveness is part of our strategy. But that does not suggest that we are making a coalition government in order to avoid a runoff or anything like it."