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Afghans to pick president as poll shows Ghani coming from behind

KABUL — Afghans will elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai on Saturday as their war-torn country strives to complete its first democratic transfer of power since the United States ousted the Taliban in 2001.

Abdullah Abdullah, who won the most votes in the first round of the election in April, is trying to stave off ex- finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in a runoff. Ghani led Abdullah by seven percentage points in a survey this month of 2,800 voters conducted by research group Glevum Associates. It had a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points.

The winner faces the challenge of boosting growth in one of Asia’s poorest economies while fighting Taliban insurgents as the U.S. reduces troops in the country. Abdullah survived a suicide attack last week in Kabul that killed six people, underscoring the dangers as the Taliban vow to disrupt the vote.

"There were no disputes or violence after April 5 because there was no winner," Abdullah Ahmadzai, deputy country representative in Kabul for the Asia Foundation and former chief of Afghanistan’s election commission. "Now, that will not be the case, and we can only hope that the losing party accepts the outcome of the election with responsible behavior."

The Taliban in a statement two days ago called for "nonstop" attacks on election day "so that the enemy is paralyzed and this process is aborted." Fresh elections must be held if a presidential candidate dies before the declaration of election results, according to the constitution.

Partial election results will start to be released from July 2 and final results are scheduled to be announced July 22.

Both Abdullah and Ghani have vowed to sign a security pact with the U.S. immediately after taking office. Karzai has delayed signing the deal, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, which is needed to keep U.S. troops in the country beyond this year and secure billions of dollars in pledged aid.

President Barack Obama said last month that U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be reduced to 9,800 by the end of this year, with only a small security assistance force at the embassy by the end of 2016, when he will be preparing to leave office.

Abdullah won 45 percent of more than 7 million votes on April 5, with Ghani taking 32 percent. Turnout was double the previous presidential election in 2009. A runoff was necessary because no candidate took more than 50 percent of votes.

Both Abdullah and Ghani picked up endorsements from other candidates after the first round and say they are confident of winning the runoff. Abdullah received the backing of third-place finisher Zalmai Rassoul, whose vice presidential candidate is backing Ghani.

"We are confident that victory is ours," Ghani said in a May 24 interview.

Abdullah, 53, is half Pashtun and half Tajik. As foreign minister under Karzai, he was a close aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood, an ethnic Tajik seen by many Afghans as a national hero who fought against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.

Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun who served as Afghanistan’s finance minister from 2002-2004 and finished fourth in the 2009 election. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in New York.

Pashtuns account for 42 percent of Afghanistan’s 32 million people, while Tajiks make up 27 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. Uzbeks and Hazaras account for 9 percent and other groups comprise the rest.

"Ethnicity plays a critical role in determining the fate of a candidate," Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, said in a phone interview. "Votes could be split among ethnic lines."

Andrew MacAskill contributed from New Delhi.
 

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