The balance of Afghanistan's presidential election has tilted significantly in favor of front-runner Abdullah Abdullah after he secured a key endorsement.
Former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasul, who was eliminated from the electoral race after apparently finishing third in the first round, announced his support for Abdullah in Kabul on May 11. According to preliminary results, Abdullah took 44.9 percent of the April 5 vote, followed by former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani with 31.5 percent, and Rasul with 11.5 percent.
Rasul's endorsement gives a clear boost to Abdullah's chances, according to analysts, to the point that Ghani could face pressure to drop out of the race. That's because wrapping the race up now could spare the Afghan people the formidable costs and potential violence that would accompany a second-round vote.
A vote has not been officially set -- the official final results of the first round are to be announced on May 14, upon the completion of the complaint period -- but an Abdullah-Ghani runoff is seen as a foregone conclusion.
Ethnicity In The Mix
Rasul's announcement, which came after weeks of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, forms a formidable alliance that observers say would make it difficult for Ghani to win a second-round vote, tentatively scheduled for June 14.
"The fact that Rasul has made this endorsement will bring further weight to the Abdullah campaign," says Graeme Smith, a senior, Kabul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Abdullah is of mixed ethnicity -- half ethnic Tajik and half Pashtun -- but is regarded by many Afghans as a Tajik, mostly because of his past prominence in the former Northern Alliance and his close relationship with the group's slain former leader, Ahmad Shah Masud, a revered Tajik and anti-Soviet commander.
With the backing of Rasul, a Pashtun who descends from the southern province of Kandahar, Abdullah stands to win over some Pashtun voters who might be wary of his Tajik background. Abdullah has also received the backing of another key power broker in the Pashtun heartland -- Gul Agha Sherzai, a rival candidate and former governor of the southern provinces of Kandahar and Nangarhar.
Analysts note, however, that it remains uncertain whether Rasul's voters would automatically back Abdullah. And Ghani's team has stressed that not all members of Rasul's election team have joined Abdullah. Significantly, Rasul's first-vice-presidential running mate -- Ahmad Zia Masud, an ethnic Tajik and brother of Ahmad Shah Masud -- has reportedly given his backing to Ghani.
No White Flag
The high cost of holding another election, the increased security risk of a runoff vote in the middle of the Taliban's fighting season, and fears that another vote could expand ethnic divisions have all been floated as potential drawbacks of holding a second round.
Ghani's team, however, has announced that the former World Bank official is committed to staying in the race.
Abdul Waheed Wafa, the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, says Ghani is unlikely to give in. He says a second round of voting is likely to be split along ethnic lines, which could benefit Ghani, a Pashtun. Pashtuns are the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan, composing more than 40 percent of the population, according to figures commonly cited by the Afghan government. Ethnic Tajiks, meanwhile, are believed to make up around 27 percent.
"They [Ghani's team] calculate that in a second round the ethnic card will work and 90 percent of Pashtuns will vote for a Pashtun candidate, which is Ashraf Ghani," says Wafa.
Afghans frequently vote along ethnic lines. But the first round witnessed the split of many ethnic voting blocs. Significantly for Abdullah, he was able to win an impressive share of ballots in the country's Pashtun south.
Wafa adds that Ghani is also under pressure from key power brokers and political parties that have backed him to stay in the race and refrain from any deal to avoid a second round. A compromise, they argue, would put Ghani at a disadvantage when a new government is formed.
Rasul, speaking at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel on May 11, said he was endorsing Abdullah to avoid possible ethnic rifts from a runoff.
"The main reason we decided to join hands is to prevent the election from being decided on an ethnic basis," said Rasul, who was widely seen as backed by President Hamid Karzai. Karzai himself was barred from seeking a third consecutive term in office.
Smith suggests another possibility: "I think there is a perception among some of the elites in the Presidential Palace -- that is Karzai's team -- that Abdullah may represent more continuity than Ghani."
Karzai has revealed that he wants to play a political role after he hands over the formal reins of power, and Abdullah and Ghani have each said they would give the ex-president a key role within their new administration.