KABUL (Reuters) - Polls predict Afghan President Hamid Karzai will win the August 20 presidential election, but not with the outright majority needed to avoid a run-off against his chief challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Two separate polls, commissioned by the U.S. government and published last week, gave Karzai about 45 percent of the vote and Abdullah about 25 percent.
Karzai has since won public endorsements from two powerful former militia chiefs, Ismail Khan in the west of the country and ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum in the north, who returned to Afghanistan late Sunday to help Karzai’s campaign.
Abdullah’s campaign has also gathered momentum, and Western diplomats say the first round outcome is now too close to call.
Here are some scenarios that may unfold:
The president would still be the front runner, but a two-horse race could be a challenge because his opponents would finally have a standard-bearer to rally around. Karzai relies in part on the support of powerful former guerrilla chiefs and regional bosses, but some could peel away if they are no longer certain he will win.
Abdullah’s roots are in a northern, mainly ethnic Tajik anti-Taliban guerrilla movement, and he still draws most of his support from the north. But his father was a Pashtun from the south, and Abdullah seems to have had at least some success in broadening his support beyond his movement’s traditional base. His roots may still make it difficult for him to win enough southern support to defeat Karzai in a second round.
Karzai remains the only candidate with a serious shot at winning more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. He won 55 percent in the country’s first democratic election in 2004, and some of those who ran against him then, like Dostum, are supporting him now.
Afghans have mixed views about Karzai. Security in parts of Afghanistan has deteriorated badly since 2004 despite an influx of foreign troops, and many Afghans complain that Karzai’s government is corrupt, ineffective and beholden to the West.
Even as war intensifies in some areas, however, much of the country is at peace for the first time in decades and desperate poverty is easing. Despite discontent with his government, Karzai himself remains personally popular: in one poll, 81 percent of respondents had a favorable view of him and only 17 percent had an unfavorable view, consistent with other surveys. Abdullah is also well-liked, with a favorable rating of 71 percent.
Violence this year is at its worst since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and has worsened ahead of the poll. Taliban militants have called for a boycott and have vowed to disrupt the vote, although their threats have often been vague about whether they would specifically target voters or polling stations. Saturday, they claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb outside the headquarters of Western troops in Kabul in which seven Afghans were killed and scores injured.
A U.N. report last week said intimidation and attacks have already interfered with election preparations and campaigning, and could prevent many Afghans from voting. U.S. officials, however, believe attacks are unlikely to reach a level that would scupper the election.
The violence is mainly concentrated in the south, which is where Karzai draws much of his support. Violence that suppresses turnout there could therefore increase the chance of a run-off. Violence also hinders efforts to prevent fraud, which could add to doubts about the legitimacy of the result.
There are more than 100,000 Western troops in the country, promising to impose an outer perimeter of security, while Afghan troops and police will handle security in towns and villages.
Western diplomats say their main goal is to ensure that the election is seen as credible and legitimate, but huge distances, powerful local chiefs, low literacy rates and weak institutions make it difficult to prevent abuse.
There have already been reports of fake voter registration cards for sale and of suspiciously large numbers of women being registered -- possibly by men who could try to cast votes on their behalf, a practice that could allow fraud.
There have been some suggestions that Abdullah’s supporters could resort to violent protest if Karzai wins in the first round and they believe the result was tainted. However, Abdullah himself has tried to play down such suggestions as alarmist.
Karzai’s opponents also complain that state media and patronage give the president an unfair advantage.