Initial Afghan Elections Went Well, But Worries Rise For Round Two

Afghanistan's presidential election in April left no candidate with more than 50 percent of the vote. A second-round election will be held on June 14 — during the peak of the Taliban fighting season. There are growing concerns that election day could be a blood bath, and that a close outcome would result in political instability.

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In Afghanistan, campaigning is underway for that country's presidential runoff election. Two candidates are competing to succeed President Hamid Karzai. And the vote is set for June 14. The first round was largely considered a success - with less violence and fraud than expected. And voter turnout exceeded expectations. But as NPR's Sean Carberry reports, there are growing concerns that the second round could be a far messier affair.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ASHRAF GHANI: (Speaking foreign language).

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank official, kicks off his runoff campaign before a crowd of several thousand in Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GHANI: (Speaking foreign language).

CARBERRY: Ghani, pushing his vocal cords to their limit, implores his supporters to fight for victory. But he has a tough battle ahead. The technocrat trailed front-runner Abdullah Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister, by 14 points in the first round. Though given Afghanistan's quirky ethnic and strongman-based politics, it's possible Ghani could eke out a victory.

GRAEME SMITH: The nightmare scenario here is a close, bitter second round.

CARBERRY: Graeme Smith, Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul, says Afghanistan's electoral commission simply aren't equipped to handle a close result. The best-case scenario is a margin of victory, so large no one can question it - worst-case prolonged challenges, political prices and violence. The candidate Abdullah Abdullah says it's up to the electoral commissions to make sure the worst-case it doesn't happen.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: The only thing that prevents any possibility of any crisis is to make sure that the process works - the process is transparent and fair.

CARBERRY: He adds that, in the first round, electoral officials didn't do enough to prevent fraud and to properly evaluate complaints of ballot stuffing or other irregularities.

ABDULLAH: This time there is no room for repetition of the same mistakes or failures.

CARBERRY: A confident Abdullah says that if he loses a fair and transparent second round, he will peacefully respect the results.

ABDULLAH: The outcome? It's important. But the process is more important than the outcome.

CARBERRY: Ghani says he will also respect a transparent outcome. But both candidates have intimated that, if there is massive fraud, they can't prevent their supporters from reacting violently.

YOUSUF NURISTANI: (Speaking foreign language).

CARBERRY: Yousuf Nuristani, head of the electoral commission, says they're adding 3,500 more polling sites to address previous ballots shortages. And 5,000 election workers have been fired for alleged violations. Smith, with the ICG, sees that as a positive sign. But replacing those workers will be difficult when the talent pool wasn't that deep to begin with.

SMITH: So opening these extra thousands of polling stations is going to be a really hard thing for them.

CARBERRY: Of equal or greater concern, than the performance of the electoral body, is security. Taliban violence was far less than expected in the first round - though that vote was held in the spring - well before the militants typically ramp up their annual offensive. Next month's second round will fall squarely in the so-called fighting season.

SMITH: It'll be a real messy process. It'll probably be extremely violent.

CARBERRY: Which has many people arguing that it might be better for the two candidates to cut a deal to avoid the runoff. So far, both Abdullah and Ghani have vowed there will be no deal. And despite the risks, the voters should decide the outcome. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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