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Presidential Front-Runner Abdullah Abdullah Endorsed by Rival Zalmai Rassoul

Afghan Presidential Front-Runner Abdullah Abdullah Endorsed by Rival Zalmai Rassoul

Mr. Rassoul Finished Third in the Initial Round of the Presidential Election

KABUL—Front-runner Abdullah Abdullah moved a big step closer to becoming Afghanistan's next president, securing the endorsement of a candidate who finished third in the initial round of voting.

According to preliminary results, Mr. Abdullah won 44.9% in the April 5 election, followed by former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani, with 31.5%. The two are supposed to face each other in a runoff in June.

Finishing third with 11.5% was former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, who was widely seen as backed by President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai himself was prohibited by the constitution from running again. While not all of Mr. Rassoul's voters will automatically back Mr. Abdullah in the runoff, the endorsement on Sunday significantly bolstered Mr. Abdullah's prospects.

"Psychologically, it will have a big impact on many Afghans. This means that the Abdullah team will get momentum, and Ashraf Ghani will be under so much pressure," said Waliullah Rahmani, the director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies think tank and a supporter of Mr. Rassoul.

Concerned about the costs and security risks of a runoff, some officials in Kabul and the international community argue that Mr. Ghani should yield the election that he would be hard pressed to win anyway, given his double-digit gap with Mr. Abdullah. That is what Mr. Abdullah did under international pressure in 2009, standing down after the first round and allowing Mr. Karzai to win without a runoff. At the time, Mr. Karzai secured 49.7% in the first round against Mr. Abdullah's 30.1%.

Mr. Ghani's aides, however, say their candidate, a Columbia University Ph.D. holder and former finance minister, is still confident he can win. Mr. Rassoul's endorsement "was of an isolated individual and some of his friends, not that of a social movement," said Mr. Ghani's adviser, Ajmal Obaid Abidy.

While Mr. Rassoul and one of his two vice-presidential candidates, Habiba Sarabi came on stage with Mr. Abdullah during an event Sunday to announce the new alliance.

Mr Sarabi is a former government of Bamian province, dominated by the Hazara ethnic group. But his second vice-presidential nominee, Ahmad Zia Massoud, was conspicuously absent.

Mr. Massoud, a brother of the late Tajik anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, commands considerable support and is exploring the possibility of joining Mr. Ghani's team, people familiar with the talks say. Mr. Abdullah was an aide and adviser to Ahmad Shah Massoud. Mr. Karzai's brothers Qayum and Mahmood, who had campaigned for Mr. Rassoul, also didn't appear on Sunday.

Messrs. Abdullah and Rassoul reached an agreement that calls for decentralizing the government structure, and for changing the electoral law to increase the role of political parties. Currently, the president makes minute decisions, down to appointments of district-level officials, and parliament is elected under a system that benefits local warlords and tribal chiefs at the expense of organized political parties.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next year.

The agreement also calls for pursuing peace talks with the Taliban. Messrs. Abdullah, Rassoul and Ghani have all repeatedly said that, if elected, they would quickly sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. that is needed to maintain some American troops in the country after the coalition's mandate ends in December. Mr. Karzai has so far refused to sign it.

A former leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance who served as foreign minister following the 2001 U.S. invasion, Mr. Abdullah is of mixed Tajik and Pashtun ancestry, and draws much of his support from the Tajik and Hazara communities of central and northern Afghanistan. All other presidential candidates are Pashtuns, members of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, which has traditionally produced rulers from the kings to the Taliban to Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Rassoul descends from Afghanistan's royal family, originally from the southern city of Kandahar—the homeland of Mr. Karzai and a critical reservoir of votes. Another contender with a support base in Kandahar, former provincial governor Gul Agha Shirzai, has endorsed Mr. Abdullah.

Such backing is likely to make Mr. Abdullah more palatable to many southern Pashtuns who are wary of his Tajik background.

"Our people are tired of war and discrimination—what they want is national unity," Mr. Rassoul said at Sunday's event in Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, packed with several hundred supporters. "The main reason we decided to join hands is to prevent the election from being decided on an ethnic basis."

 Source: Washington Post

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