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Afghan Presidential Candidate Enlists U.S. PR Firm As Runoff Nears

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah addresses supporters during an election campaign rally in the Paghman district of Kabul Province on June 9.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah has enlisted a U.S. public-relations firm ahead of the June 14 runoff to highlight his "commitment to democracy, peace, stability, and free and fair elections," according to public records.

Abdullah, who is vying against former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani to become Afghanistan's next leader, has engaged the Washington-based firm Sanitas International to provide "senior-level communications counsel" to his campaign, according to U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) documents filed this month.

The terms of the contract were still under discussion at the time of the filing, according to the documents. Sanitas did not respond to e-mails or voicemails requesting comment.

Joe Ritchie, a U.S. businessman who has advised the Abdullah campaign, told RFE/RL that the agreement was limited in scope and aimed in part at highlighting voting irregularities in the April 5 first-round ballot.

"The goal was simply to shine a light on the problem of irregularities in the election, so that it's not assumed to be successful just because a lot of voters turned up," Ritchie said. "Everybody focused on the fact you had a lot of votes. People didn't focus that much on the irregularities."

Abdullah, a former foreign minister under current Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was the leader in the first round with 45 percent of the vote, while Ghani, an ex-finance minister, finished second with 31.6 percent.

A first-round total of 50 percent or more for a single candidate was needed to avoid a runoff, the results of which are expected to be announced on July 22.

Sanitas has done public-relations work for several foreign clients, including the Kingdom of Bahrain amid the so-called "Arab Spring" protests in the country that erupted in 2011.

As a subcontractor, Sanitas received $194,634 in fees and services thanks to its work for Bahrain's government between August 2011 and March 2012, according to the watchdog group Bahrain Watch, which has tracked Sanitas' work for the kingdom through FARA records.

Ritchie, a wealthy options and commodities trader based in the Chicago area, has had a long affiliation with Afghanistan and was supporting anti-Taliban efforts in the 1990s, according to a 2001 profile by "The New York Times."
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