Abdullah, Ghani to Square Off in Second Afghan Vote

The two are due to enter a second voting round in what has so far been a largely peaceful election.

Nearly two weeks after more than seven million Afghans ventured to the polls to participate in the country’s presidential election, the Afghan Independent Election Commission released for the first time initial results of the contest. And, as was expected by Afghan officials and Western analysts monitoring the voting process, the presumed favorites garnered the biggest share of the vote.

Of the eight candidates, only two managed to score in the double digits. Abdullah Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai’s challenger in the 2009 presidential election, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank economist, are at the top of the field with 42 and 38 percent support, respectively. Zalmai Rassoul, the man thought to be favored by Karzai, came in third with nearly 10 percent.

According to Afghan electoral law, a candidate can only claim the presidency if he manages to draw at least 50 percent of the votes in the first round. Otherwise, the top two candidates have to square off in a second round.

Although only a small portion of the vote count has been released (10 percent), the divided nature of the results posted by the election commission suggests that Afghans will once again have to trek to the polling stations in May or June, depending on how long the commission takes to investigate voting irregularities and claims of voting fraud.

Regardless of who wins the election, the 2014 presidential vote has proved to be far more peaceful and transparent than the last election five years ago, when Abdullah Abdullah dropped out of the race in protest over repeated election violations on behalf of the incumbent Karzai. The fact that there has not been a significant dispute between the candidates so far demonstrates that the process seems to have worked as was intended. While voting violations have run to nearly 2,000, most are considered minor enough to not affect the final result — a stark contrast to the 2009 election when a million ballots were thrown out as fraudulent or fake.

For the United States and other NATO countries that are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, what is perhaps more important than who wins is how safe and secure the first round of voting was. Despite expectations that the Taliban would disrupt the election with a series of high-profile attacks on security forces and civilians, election day concluded with limited violence. The Afghan security forces, with international troops on standby, were largely able to secure the thousands of polling stations across the country, with 96.8 percent of the sites reported to be safe. The Afghan government, however, will need to replicate that success during an even more consequential voting process later in the year if a runoff is held. The Taliban are unlikely to be complacent with a process that their leaders have called a ploy imposed by foreigners.

Whoever wins, the United States and NATO will no longer have to deal with the difficult Hamid Karzai. Yet the biggest winners are the Afghans who can now move to a future without a Karzai occupying the presidential palace.