- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

JAGHORI, Afghanistan | Swaying from the sunroof of a dirt-streaked 4x4, Abdullah Abdullah could only grin.

In his first visit to this poor, ethnic-Hazara enclave in east-central Afghanistan, the Tajik-Pashtun candidate for president was received by more than 1,000 people who jostled to get a clear look at him, snatched pictures with cell phone cameras and killed a cow in his honor.

Of the 40 candidates challenging President Hamid Karzai’s bid for a second term in the Aug. 20 elections, Mr. Abdullah is the only one within reach of forcing a runoff, according to a recent poll funded by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI).

“Ethnicity doesn’t matter; I have mobilized the people. What a beautiful day it is,” Mr. Abdullah told The Washington Times as he and his entourage careened down a dirt track toward a Russian-built MI-17 helicopter that would take him to his next campaign stop in neighboring Daykundi province.

With less than a week to go until elections are held for president and parliament, the one-time ophthalmologist and former foreign minister is ramping up his bid to challenge Mr. Karzai with a populist message that seeks to bridge the country’s ethnic fault lines. Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun, as are about 40 percent of Afghanistan’s 33 million people.

The day before, Mr. Abdullah traveled to a rally in the foothills above the Shomali plains north of Kabul, where he was mobbed by throngs of mostly Tajik supporters.

On another day, he was scheduled to fly south to Kandahar, the Pashtun heartland and a Karzai stronghold. After that, he was scheduled to visit Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, with expectations of a massive turnout.

Dizzying as it may be, Mr. Abdullah is counting on the hustle to pay off.

According to the IRI-funded poll released Friday, Mr. Abdullah has 26 percent support, compared with Mr. Karzai at 44 percent. This was a dramatic increase over just 7 percent backing Mr. Abdullah as shown in a poll funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development in May. Mr. Karzai’s support has grown by 13 percent since May.

Just two weeks ago, Mr. Karzai appeared to be headed for the 50 percent-plus margin of victory needed to win re-election in one round. If Mr. Karzai falls short of the 50 percent mark on Thursday, a runoff will be held one month later.

Should this happen, Mr. Abdullah said he is convinced he can prevail, as Afghans disillusioned by charges of fraud and backroom dealings are roused to the real possibility of a change at the top.

“If it goes to a runoff, it will certainly be my job,” he said.

Given how effectively Mr. Karzai has co-opted influential warlords from the main ethnic groups over the past months, analysts say the election remains his to lose, but is not guaranteed.

Mr. Karzai’s public appearances have tended to be brief, and he has refused to participate in television debates, leaving Mr. Abdullah and the third major candidate, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, to debate each other.

Mr. Ghani has done well on television, a novelty for this impoverished nation, where television was banned until the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

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