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Afghan Election: Numbers Stacked Against Ashraf Ghani

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai greets a girl at a campaign appearance in Jozjan Province on June 2.
The math was simple enough for Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani.

To win the presidency, he would need to keep the votes he received in taking a 32 percent share in the first round. Then, he would need to win over those who voted neither for him nor the leading candidate, Abdullah Abdullah.

Ghani had his work cut out for him because his rival, a former foreign minister, beat him by a full 13 percentage points. But he had a decent enough chance if he could win the votes cast for first-round contestants Zalmai Rasul, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Qutbuddin Hilal, and Gul Agha Sherzai – who finished third through sixth, respectively.

The votes from their backers would easily give him the boost Ghani would need to surpass the 50 percent-plus-one-vote threshold.

Ghani had ample reason to believe this was possible. After all, all four are Pashtun candidates, Ghani is a Pashtun while Abdullah is of mixed Pashtun-Tajik ethnicity, and Afghans usually vote along ethnic lines.
Knowing full well that many Afghans saw Abdullah predominately as a Tajik because of his past association with the Northern Alliance, a Tajik-dominated anti-Taliban group, Ghani made securing Pashtun votes his main goal in the second round.

But the math does not appear to be adding up in Ghani's favor. In the weeks since the April 5 first-round vote, Rasul, Sayyaf, and Sherzai have all given their blessing to Abdullah.

Ghani could still get Hilal's endorsement, but the prominent member of the Hizb-e Islami group garnered only about 3 percent in the first round. Looking elsewhere, it appears he has little chance of making any major inroads among ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras -- the second- and third-biggest ethnic groups in Afghanistan -- who are seen to be firmly in Abdullah's camp.
It would appear that Ghani is not in a position to make up the difference, although unforeseen factors -- say, massive electoral fraud or voters going against their first-choice candidate's endorsements -- could swing the tide.

Or perhaps Abdullah's most recent endorsement, which came from Sayyaf's election team but not directly from the man himself, leaves some room for maneuver.

But even in that case things don't look good for Ghani, because Sayyaf's two vice-presidential running mates -- former Energy and Water Minister Mohammad Ismail Khan and former lawmaker Abdul Wahab Erfan -- were unequivocal in their support for Abdullah.

Khan said he hoped his endorsement would bring back an "Islamic government" led by the "mujahedin family" -- a reference to former Islamist groups that fought the Soviet Union and the Taliban. Erfan, meanwhile, said he hoped to see a "united, national, and Islamic government" take power in Afghanistan.
Abdullah -- as well as Khan and Sayyaf -- all hail from different mujahedin factions.

Sayyaf, a conservative former warlord credited with bringing former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan, promotes a rigid strand of Islam.

In a sign of newfound solidarity, Abdullah’s followers were told upon receiving the backing of Sayyaf's election team during a June 3 gathering in Kabul to stop clapping. Sayyaf's backers are known to object to clapping because they consider it "un-Islamic." Abdullah's supporters were told to instead shout "Allahu akbar," or "God is great," and they duly complied.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.