KABUL (Reuters) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai leads the country’s presidential race, but not by enough to win an outright majority in the August 20. election and avoid a second round, a new poll released on Friday shows.
The poll, by the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute, showed Karzai winning 44 percent of the vote, with his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, winning 26 percent.
With less than a week to go, the two main candidates are criss-crossing the country by helicopter and jet. Karzai flew to the Western city of Herat on Friday, while Abdullah was in the central mountain province of Dai Kundi.
Western diplomats have said they are surprised by the closeness of the race, although Karzai remains the front-runner to remain in power, if not with a first round victory then by surviving a second-round run-off six weeks later.
Just staging the election itself would be a feat, and fears that violence or fraud could undermine the vote are as palpable among many Afghans as doubt about the outcome.
The Taliban, stronger than at any time since they were driven from power eight year ago, have vowed to strike polling stations and threatened reprisals against voters.
Violence has surged in the weeks before the vote, with fighters staging a handful of bold attacks on provincial government buildings in the south, and also launching raids in once-quiet areas in the north and west.
The United Nations says violence and intimidation have already disrupted planning and campaigning in the south, and could prevent many Afghans from reaching the polls on voting day.
U.S. commanders nonetheless say they think violence will not be sufficient to prevent a successful vote.
The election is a test for U.S. President Barack Obama‘s strategy of rushing thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan to tip the balance in an eight-year-old war that was not being won.
Some 30,000 extra U.S. troops have already arrived this year, bringing the total Western force above 100,000 for the first time, including 62,000 Americans.
The overall U.S. and NATO commander, General Stanley McChrystal, is due to release an assessment shortly after the election, which could be followed by a request for more troops.
The new U.S. troops and British forces have launched huge offensives in the south to reclaim Taliban-held territory, taking unprecedented casualties. More Western troops have died in Afghanistan since March than in the entire period from 2001-2004.
Despite the worsening war and a widespread view that the government is corrupt and ineffective, Karzai remains personally quite popular. In the poll, 81 percent had a favourable view of him and only 17 percent had an unfavourable view.
The poll showed Abdullah is also well liked, with a 71 percent favourable rating and 23 percent negative.
A master coalition-builder, Karzai has accumulated the endorsements of many powerful regional chieftains, to the alarm of Western diplomats worried about former warlords carving up power after the election.
But he appears not quite to have been able to construct a broad enough coalition to repeat his overwhelming single-round victory in the country’s first democratic presidential election five years ago, when he won 55 percent of the vote and his nearest challenger got less than 16 percent.
Abdullah, an urbane eye doctor with roots in a mainly ethnic-Tajik northern anti-Taliban guerrilla movement, has been seeking to broaden his support in the south, where his father was born. This week he staged a rally in Karzai’s native southern city of Kandahar, attracting hundreds of followers.
An Abdullah rally the following day in his own heartland of support, the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, attracted tens of thousands of supporters, probably the biggest crowd of the campaign. Karzai also has attracted large rallies.
The poll showed Ramazan Bashardost, a former planning minister and member of the Hazara ethnic minority whose office is in a tent opposite parliament, would place second with 10 percent of the vote. Ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani wins 6 percent.