Initial results are expected to be made public on Aug. 25, though a final total won't be known until two weeks later. Karzai is expected to come out ahead, but it appears unlikely he'll carry the 50% of the vote plus one needed to avoid a runoff in October. Should a runoff happen, analysts agree the country will retreat to ethnic and regional divisions, with the majority of Pashtuns across the south backing Karzai, and Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group, rallying in the north behind Abdullah, the son of a Pashtun father and Tajik mother. Abdullah is also more closely identified with the Northern Alliance, which ousted the Taliban a largely Pashtun movement from power in late 2001.
Abdullah struck early the day after the election with charges that Karzai supporters were guilty of ballot-stuffing, intimidation and widespread irregularities. He expanded his case on Aug. 23 with claims that pro-Karzai ballots were still coming in from parts of violent southern provinces, where turnout was said to be low to nonexistent. A spokesman for Karzai levied similar charges of fraud-related violations while asserting that the former Foreign Minister was acting out of desperation. However, the head of the electoral complaints commission has since said his group has received 35 allegations of "high priority" misconduct that are "material to election results" and could potentially sway the outcome.
As expectations of both candidates' victories swell, some fear that heavy disappointment in Abdullah's strongholds may yield protests. While no one foresees the kind of unrest that followed the disputed Iranian election in June, each candidate's lack of an "organized mechanism" to cope with masses of angered, loosely knit partisans could allow the situation to boil over with time, says Haroun Mir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies. "If one group feels left out, it will create problems for everybody," Mir says. Indeed, Abdullah's campaign manager told an Abu Dhabibased newspaper last month to predict street violence if Abdullah didn't win. (Abdullah, in damage-control mode, said his manager was misquoted.)
Then there is the militant menace, which succeeded in diminishing voter turnout in much of the south. In at least two instances, promises to cut off the fingers of those who voted were made good on. The extra time and mounting pressure of a runoff would create a climate that could be readily exploited, according to Mir, by the Taliban or "neighbors who like to meddle in Afghan affairs" a less-than-subtle reference to Pakistan. "If someone wants to make trouble, it's a good time."
In a bid to ease tensions, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, met with the leading candidates in Kabul on Aug. 21, the day after the election, urging against hasty claims that might spell trouble later. Both men offered assurances, and so far, both men have directed their grievances to the complaint commission, whose fraud investigations seem to have temporarily appeased the rival camps.
Some see an opportunity in the nation's current political divisions. Presuming that Abdullah loses upfront or in a second round, Nasrullah Stanikzai, a law and politics professor at Kabul University, says a strong opposition is healthy to help raise the legitimacy of the Karzai government, which lately has enjoyed little public faith. "This would be good for Karzai, good for Afghanistan," he says. With U.S. mediation, political analyst Waheed Muzhda believes that a bargain might eventually be worked out between Karzai and Abdullah that "everyone can live with."
But for most Pashtuns, there is only one acceptable outcome. Gholam Mohammad, 24, a taxi driver in the capital who voted for Karzai, says Afghanistan's leaders have historically been Pashtuns like him, a tradition that should never change. Still, he approves of Karzai's choices of Mohammad Fahim, a Tajik, and Karim Khalili, a Hazara, as his two Vice Presidents, a choice he thinks will help ensure some cohesion among the different groups around the country. And what if Karzai somehow lost and a non-Pashtun took his place? "It would not be good," says Mohammad.
Such sentiments are standard in the Pashtun-dominated south. "The Pashtun people are the owners of this country, no one else," says Abdul Khan, 63, a tribal elder from Kandahar city. Another local Pashtun man said he would rather vote for a Hindu before Abdullah, a fellow Muslim. A second vote for Karzai would suffice, if the Taliban threats and voting controversy don't get in the way.
With reporting by Homayoun Shoaib / Kandahar
This article was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.