KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan released preliminary results in its crucial presidential election on Saturday, but the results are only one step in a potentially long road to determine who will succeed President Hamid Karzai. Neither of the two leading vote-getters, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, won a majority, meaning the country is heading for a runoff.
WHEN WILL WE KNOW WHO IS AFGHANISTAN'S NEXT PRESIDENT?
Probably not for weeks. Final results from this round of voting are due May 14. Since no candidate garnered a majority in the first round, a runoff will be required between Abdullah and Ahmadzai. The election commission chairman set a tentative date of June 7. After that, the entire process of counting, handling complaints and making revisions begins again, meaning that it could be late July before a final winner is declared.
WHAT'S AT STAKE?
The U.S.-led military coalition is counting on Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power as part of its plan to withdraw most troops by the end of the year, nearly 13 years after toppling the Taliban's radical Islamic regime for sheltering al-Qaida's Osama bin Laden. The new president will face the daunting task of overseeing the foreign forces' withdrawal and also resetting relations with Washington, which have taken a battering from Karzai's increasing anti-American rhetoric. He will also be under pressure to quickly finalize a security agreement with the U.S. that Karzai has refused to sign. Both Abdullah and Ahmadzai have vowed to sign the security pact to allow a small U.S. training force to help the Afghan military and police fight the Taliban.
WHY IS THE ELECTION TAKING SO LONG?
The election schedule was intentionally given time to accommodate for Afghanistan's far-flung and daunting geography. Many ballot boxes had to be transported by donkey. Plus, time was added for fraud investigations.
HAS VOTER FRAUD BEEN A PROBLEM?
Almost certainly, but it's still hard to tell just how much and who it benefits. Most observers believe the level of fraud is lower than the 2009 elections, when ballot-box stuffing caused more than 1 million ballots to be thrown out. The election commission invalidated some 240,000 votes in this election and are examining ballot boxes that could represent 200,000 more, but those likely would not affect the outcome of this round.
CAN RISKS IN THE RUNOFF BE AVOIDED?
The Taliban launched hundreds of attacks before the election, though the voting itself was largely peaceful. A second round would risk yet more attacks, another challenge for police and army in securing polling stations. There are also fears that a runoff might be bitterly contested and divisive. Some even worry it could stoke ethnic tension. However, both Abdullah and Ahmadzai pledge they'll keep their campaign rhetoric respectful to avoid divisions in a runoff.
WHO WOULD WIN A SECOND ROUND OF VOTING?
It depends on whether voters follow ethnic lines and whether first-round candidates can transfer their supporters to a new ally. All eight candidates are from the Pashtun ethnicity, Afghanistan's largest, but Abdullah is seen by some as not a true Pashtun, since his mother was ethnic Tajik. One theory is that supporters of the six other candidates will coalesce behind the remaining candidate they see as Pashtun. That would give Ahmadzai the advantage, as would support from ethnic Uzbeks loyal to one of running mates, powerful warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Still, Abdullah clearly has had some Pashtun support in the first round, and his experienced campaign may draw enough in a runoff to add to his strong advantage in Kabul and among other ethnicities to put him over 50 percent. Zalmai Rassoul, in third place with 11.5 percent of the vote, also could sway voters though it is unclear if he would be able to deliver the votes of his largely Pashtun supporters.