KABUL A new poll predicts Afghan President Hamid Karzai will win the August 20 presidential election, but not by enough to avoid a run-off against his chief challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
The poll, commissioned by the U.S. government and carried out in all provinces of the country, gives Karzai 45 percent of the vote and Abdullah 25 percent.
Ramazan Bashardost, a former planning minister, scores 9 percent, but none of the remaining 30-plus challengers score more than 4 percent.
Here are some scenarios that may unfold:
- KARZAI FACES A RUN-OFF AGAINST ABDULLAH
The president would still be the front runner, but a two-horse race could be a challenge because his opponents would finally have a standard-bearer to rally around. Karzai relies in part on the support of powerful former guerrilla chiefs and regional bosses, but some could peel away if they are no longer certain he will win.
Abdullah is a leader of the movement that arose from the mainly-ethnic Tajik anti-Taliban guerrillas informally known as the Northern Alliance, and still draws most of his support from the north. His father was a Pashtun, and Abdullah seems to have had some success in broadening his support beyond his movement's traditional base, although his roots may make it difficult for him to win enough southern support to defeat Karzai in a second round.
- KARZAI WINS IN FIRST ROUND
Karzai remains the only candidate with a serious shot at winning more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. He won 55 percent in the country's first democratic election in 2004, defeating a field that included many of those running now.
Security in parts of Afghanistan has deteriorated starkly since 2004 despite an influx of foreign troops, and many Afghans complain that Karzai's government is corrupt, ineffective and beholden to the West.
Even as war intensifies in some areas, however, much of the country is at peace for the first time in decades and desperate poverty easing. Despite discontent with his government, Karzai himself remains popular: in the poll, two-thirds of respondents had a favourable view of him and only 16 percent had an unfavourable view, consistent with other surveys.
- VOTING DISRUPTED BY VIOLENCE
Violence this year is at its worst since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and has worsened ahead of the poll. Taliban militants have called for a boycott and have vowed to disrupt the vote with attacks on polling stations and threats against voters.
A U.N. report this week said intimidation and attacks have already interfered with election preparations and campaigning and could prevent many Afghans from voting. U.S. officials, however, believe attacks are unlikely to reach a level that would scupper the election.
The violence is mainly concentrated in the south, which is where Karzai draws much of his support. Violence that suppresses turnout could increase the chance of a run-off. Violence also hinders efforts to prevent fraud, which could add to doubts about the legitimacy of the result.
There are more than 100,000 Western troops in the country, promising to impose an outer perimeter of security, while Afghan troops and police will handle security in towns and villages.
- VOTING MARRED BY FRAUD
Western diplomats say their main goal is to ensure that the election is seen as legitimate, but huge distances, powerful local chiefs, low literacy rates and weak institutions make it difficult to prevent abuse.
There have already been reports of fake voter registration cards for sale and of suspiciously large numbers of women being registered -- possibly by men bringing lists of names to registration centres.
There have been some suggestions that Abdullah's supporters could resort to violent protest if Karzai wins in the first round and they believe the result was tainted by fraud. Abdullah himself has tried to play such suggestions down as alarmist.
Karzai's opponents also complain that state media and patronage give the president an unfair advantage.
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)