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The Biggest Threat to the Afghan Election

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The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan announced the results of the 2014 presidential election on Thursday, saying there will be a runoff vote between the two top candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The next round of voting has been scheduled for June 14.

Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, the Chairman of the Commission, said: "My request [is that once] again the brave and patriotic people of Afghanistan do as they did before, when millions of them cast their votes, to go and cast their votes again."

The danger posed by having to go through it all again worries Afghans, especially those in troubled areas, as well as uncertainty over whether public excitement will be the same as it was in April, when over 7 million Afghans participated in the election. There is also the fear of massive fraud, especially in the South.

Interestingly, Abdullah received most of his votes from Pashtun-dominated areas, despite the fact he is half Pashtun and half Tajik. Ghani received most of his votes from Uzbeks and Hazara Ismailis -- thanks to the powerful Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, who ran as his vice-presidential candidate. Ghani, a Pashtun, won fewer than half a million votes in the troubled south of Afghanistan, which is largely Pashtun and considered a stronghold of Afghanistan's drug syndicates.

Ghani, a Western-educated former World Bank official and Afghan finance minister, has faced frequent questions over Dostum's participation because of his reputation as a brutal warlord.

Regardless of ethnicity and sect, Ghani's campaign and his financial supporters are widely associated with some of the most controversial figures in the country, with links to drug trafficking as well as human rights violations.

Fears that these drug lords and criminals might return to power led to an unprecedented coalition between the presidential candidates against Ghani. Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, a conservative Islamist; Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister and close aide and personal physician to the last king of Afghanistan; and Ghul Agha Sherzai, a former governor of Kandahar, all backed Abdullah to show that prominent Pashtun leaders were against Ghani.

Members of Ghani's camp include Haji Zahir Qadir from Nangahar province and his uncle Din Mohammad, the province's governor. Qadir is the most well-known and powerful drug lord in Afghanistan.

In 2007, security officials arrested five border policemen from the 8th border battalion in northern Takhar province. The five were found to be carrying more than 120 kilograms of heroin in a police vehicle. Qadir was commander of the battalion at that time.

The Afghan judiciary acknowledged that the heroin had been taken from Qadir's house and was on its way to the border police base in Takhar.

A U.S. newspaper, the Boston Globe, reported that President Hamid Karzai pardoned Qadir in 2009, before that year's presidential election, and after his reelection ordered the release of the five drug smugglers from jail. The paper said that among the men released was another nephew of Din Mohammad.

Din Mohammad was a campaigner for Karzai during the presidential election at 2009, and this year backed Ghani.

The leader of Afghanistan's Shi'a Ismailis, Mansur Naderi, also supported Ghani, and is a business partner in a gold mining company in Ismaili areas with the current finance minister's brother --who has been summoned to parliament several times to answer allegations of tax evasion and smuggling cigarettes into Afghanistan. Judicial cases against all of the men are still open, and under a powerful, corruption-fighting government all of them could face further difficulties.

Within Abdullah's campaign, the fear is not one of losing the runoff or that sectarianism could play a major role in the voting. What concerns them is the month-long period from now to the runoff, which could see a winding down of electoral fraud and the stoking of ethnic tensions. Drug cartels working closely with the Taliban could be the real threat to the runoff election if they feel uneasy at the prospect of a government that won't pardon someone arrested carrying heroin.

This article has been syndicated from Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper published on May 17,2014.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the Afghan election was held in March. The post has been updated to correct this.