KABUL, Afghanistan – Hamid Karzai (search) is on course for a clear victory in Afghanistan's (search) first presidential election. But the returns reveal dangerous ethnic divides that could become a major problem if he wins the vote.
With more than a third of the ballots counted from the Oct. 9 election, Karzai had 64.4 percent and at least a 45-point overall lead over his nearest challengers.
It looks like Karzai will win a five-year term, his rivals have begun to concede — through gritted teeth, because of allegations of persistent fraud.
But opponents say Karzai is not a unifying choice, and point to an emerging north-south split in the vote, which reveal Karzai's heavy dependence on his fellow ethnic Pashtun people. That, detractors say, could force him to make uncomfortable alliances to shore up his control.
"Unfortunately, the country is divided, and this is the legacy of all those years of fighting," said Chafiga Habibi (search), running mate of ethnic Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum. "Four out of five votes were probably cast along ethnic lines."
Karzai was dominating in 22 of 34 provinces, according to results counted by Tuesday.
More than nine of 10 votes cast were recorded for Karzai in Pashtun heartlands such as his native Kandahar in the south and in the key eastern province of Nangarhar.
But the Web site set up by the joint Afghan-U.N. electoral body to chart the incoming results also shows a belt of a dozen provinces leaning toward Karzai's rivals across the north.
Karzai has tried hard to style himself as a unifying figure in a country where ethnic slaughter became the norm during more than two decades of fighting.
He has prayed in the mosques of minority Shiite Muslims, venerated fallen Tajik heroes of the fight against the mostly Pashtun Taliban, and offered an amnesty to the foot-soldiers of the former hardline regime.
Even his sartorial style — much admired in the West — is a mosaic of the traditional dress of Afghanistan's disparate tribes.
But critics say he is dependent on a clique of Western-educated Pashtun ministers, and a bruising debate over language rights during a constitution council in January only fanned ethnic mistrust.
Pre-election maneuvering may also have been damaging.
Under pressure from the international community, Karzai demoted three of the country's most powerful warlords — former Herat governor Ismail Khan, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and ex-Planning Minister Mohammed Mohaqeq.
All were leading lights in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which helped the United States drive out the Taliban — and hated figures for many Pashtuns, who resent the prominence of hitherto downtrodden minorities in the government.
Voters in Herat, a wealthy province on the Iranian border, appear grateful, giving Karzai their support.
But Karzai has otherwise struggled to find the powerful personalities who could bring him votes among non-Pashtuns in a country still dominated by factional loyalties.
Karzai dropped Fahim in favor of a little-known diplomat and brother of slain militia commander Ahmad Shah Massood as his running mate.
Massood became a Tajik hero by turning the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, into a stronghold against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. His myth has only grown since suspected al-Qaida operatives assassinated him on Sept. 9, 2001.
But the valley — and several neighboring provinces with Tajik majorities — have voted overwhelmingly for another Panjshiri and resistance figure, Karzai's former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni.
With almost all the votes counted in the Panjshir, Karzai had an embarrassing 0.8 percent.
Karzai and his second vice presidential candidate, Hazara leader Karim Khalili, were taking a similar mauling against Mohaqeq, who is running away with the vote in the Hazara-dominated mountains of Bamiyan and Daykundi.
Dostum, the Uzbek warlord and feared former communist commander who has failed so far to persuade Karzai to give him a top security position, leads in four more provinces.
If elected, Karzai has vowed to raise living standards for impoverished Afghans by selecting ministers for their ability and commitment to rebuilding the country — not for the size of their factional power bases.
Tom Muller, an analyst with the Afghan Research Evaluation Unit, an independent Kabul-based research organization, says keeping that promise will be the measure of Karzai's success as the country's first popularly elected leader.
But it remains to be seen if a Cabinet of technocrats with shallow roots in a country steeped in blood can exert control in his name across the lawless provinces.
"Karzai may win by cheating and with the votes of one tribe," said an embittered Mohaqeq. "But that won't make him the face of the nation."