Aug. 17 (Bloomberg) — Afghanistan’s former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah says he can block President Hamid Karzai from winning a second term this week in an election critical to U.S.-led efforts to stabilize the war-torn country.
“Week by week, we are seeing increased support, especially among young voters, and the race has become even,” Abdullah said in an interview before a final rally today at Kabul’s main sports stadium. Thousands of supporters, mostly young men, cheered Abdullah at the meeting and then formed columns of marchers and vehicles that wound through city streets, chanting his name and waving flags.
Polls show that Abdullah and Karzai are likely to face a runoff by topping the field of almost 40 candidates on Aug. 20, with neither winning the majority needed for election. This weekend’s car bombing in Kabul and rocket attacks in Kandahar underscored threats by militants to disrupt the ballot. The election is central to the Obama administration’s effort to build an Afghan government strong enough to prevent the Taliban from providing a base for al-Qaeda.
The polls, plus large crowds at Abdullah’s campaign rallies, suggest that Karzai will fall short of an election majority, “as long as there is no massive fraud,” said Peter Tomsen, a retired U.S. ambassador and former special envoy to Afghanistan. Karzai would face Abdullah in the runoff, possibly in October.
“The result of a runoff is really impossible to predict,” Tomsen said in a telephone interview from Washington.
If elected, Abdullah, 48, “would be a comfortable partner for the United States,” Tomsen said. “Like Karzai, Abdullah has a pro-Western, democratic orientation.”
Abdullah’s campaign positions are similar to those put forward by 51-year-old Karzai. Both call for rooting out the corruption that Afghans say permeates the government, and promise to seek reconciliation with at least some of the Taliban.
“I blame Karzai for not being a leader, and for failing to build an effective government,” Abdullah said.
Two opinion surveys published last week by U.S. research groups indicated that Abdullah had broken away from a pack of candidates in mid-July to become the president’s chief rival. Karzai was favored by 44 percent of voters, compared with 26 percent for Abdullah, in a poll released by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, one of several groups monitoring the election.
“We are not worried about these polls and we’re very confident that President Karzai will win,” said Sediq Seddiqi, a spokesman for HYPERLINK “http://www.president.gov.af/” t “_blank” his campaign. Each poll interviewed more than 2,000 Afghans nationwide and listed a margin of error of less than 2 percent.
Karzai held official meetings and did not plan to campaign on the final day of the race, Seddiqi said.
While many Afghans express frustration with the growing war under Karzai and the slow pace of reconstruction, a survey by Washington-based Glevum Associates found two-thirds of respondents saying they still have a favorable view of Karzai.
A suicide car bombing on Aug. 15 near the U.S. Embassy and the main North Atlantic Treaty Organization base in Kabul killed seven people and injured 91 others, reinforcing concern the Taliban may stage attacks on election day. Insurgents refrained from such strikes during Afghanistan’s first two national elections in 2004 and 2005.
The war has intensified throughout Karzai’s rule, with the Taliban having taken control of most of rural southern Afghanistan. Britain said July 30 its forces fighting under NATO command in Afghanistan are this year suffering their highest casualties of the war.
As with any candidate for national leadership, Abdullah must straddle a divide between ethnic Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest group, and non-Pashtuns who live in the center and north.
While Abdullah is from an ethnically mixed Tajik-Pashtun family, his political base is among the Tajiks of the northeast. He trained as an ophthalmologist and in the 1980s war against Soviet occupation was an aide to the most famous Afghan guerrilla commander, Ahmed Shah Masood.
Although Pashtuns historically have opposed any rule by Tajiks, Abdullah said his campaign is “bridging that divide.” He predicted that many Afghans will break with their habit of voting only for candidates from their ethnic or linguistic group.
Abdullah proposes reducing unemployment by using development funds to hire educated youths as teachers. He also plans to give a higher priority to developing agriculture to create more rural jobs and says he’ll build a network of grain banks to ease regional food shortages.
“People are desperate to see changes — an end to the war and to poverty,” he said. “The political culture is changing. I’ve heard from a lot of Pashtun families whose fathers will vote for Karzai, while the sons will vote for me.”