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America ally is Afghan poll front-runner

Kabul, April 26: Abdullah Abdullah, a long-time opponent of President Hamid Karzai and an ardent supporter of the US, emerged today as the clear front-runner in Afghanistan’s presidential election and could become the first non-Pashtun to lead the country in more than three centuries.

In preliminary results released Saturday, Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik from the north, won 45 per cent of the vote, not enough to avoid a runoff with the leading Pashtun candidate, Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist and Karzai adviser, who won 32 per cent. But Afghan government officials say Abdullah is on the verge of forging alliances with at least two of the Pashtun runners-up to gain their support, and possibly the presidency, in the next round.

Either of the top two candidates would represent a significant break with the years of deteriorating relations the US has had with Afghanistan under Karzai, and a shift towards greater bilateral cooperation.

Each candidate has said, for instance, that he would sign a security agreement with the US allowing American forces to remain in the country past 2014, which Karzai negotiated but refused to sign.

But the apparent advantage for Abdullah, with his long record of advocating closer relations with the US and a more militant stance against the Taliban, was likely to be encouraging news for the US and its Nato allies, although they have been careful to refrain from expressing support for any candidate in the race.

The election, the third for President since the Nato-led invasion of 2001, also appears to have been the country’s most democratic yet. The turnout was nearly double that of the last election, the deeply tainted race that Abdullah lost to Karzai in 2009, and early indications suggested that it was far cleaner, although final rulings on fraud complaints may not come for several weeks.

Such numbers, along with the expected Pashtun support, could give Abdullah a powerful mandate. In a recent interview, Abdullah said he would set a different tone with the US, ending the often acrimonious criticism from the Afghan President over prisoner releases, civilian casualties and night raids. “This rhetoric has not helped Afghanistan.”

The two Pashtun candidates expected to throw their support to Abdullah are Zalmay Rassoul, believed to have been Karzai’s favourite, and Gul Agha Sherzai, a former warlord favoured by the CIA and popular in the Taliban’s southern heartland, Kandahar.

 
 
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