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KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan is expected to release 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 Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, nor ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai look set to win a majority, meaning the violence-weary country could be 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. With no candidate likely to get a majority, a runoff must be held 15 days later. The most likely scenario appears to be a matchup between Abdullah and Ahmadzai in late May. Then, the entire process of counting, handling complaints and making revisions begins again, meaning that it could be late June or even 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 at 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. All eight candidates 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. Still, nearly 1,500 polling stations' ballot boxes are being audited as suspicious, potentially affecting the validity of hundreds of thousands of votes.
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, now in third place with some 10 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.
Follow Kay Johnson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kayatap.