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By Peter Graff
KABUL, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai leads in the race to win re-election in 10 days’ time but not by enough to avoid a second round of voting, a U.S. government-funded opinion poll published on Monday said.
The poll, by Washington-based firm Glevum Associates, showed Karzai winning 45 percent of decided votes, compared with 25 percent for his nearest challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Former planning minister Ramazan Bashardost would win 9 percent, the poll showed, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani 4 percent. The remaining 37 candidates all received less than 2 percent, totalling about 17 percent between them.
Several minor candidates have withdrawn since the poll was conducted from July 8-19.
“As Karzai is below 50 percent of the vote in this decided voter model, a runoff would occur if these numbers hold on August 20,” the pollsters concluded in their report.
The poll was based on face-to-face interviews with 3,556 Afghans from provinces across the country, weighted to adjust for the numbers of interviews in each province and the rural/urban distribution of the population.
Voters were given copies of actual ballots and asked to select who they would vote for.
Although the poll said Karzai would fail to secure more than half of the vote, it found he is personally popular, with two thirds of respondents having a favourable view of him and 16 percent having an unfavourable view.
Under Afghanistan’s election rules, if no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the first round, a second round run-off between the top two candidates will be held in early October.
Opponents believe they would have a stronger chance to defeat Karzai in the second round, when they would have an opportunity to unite behind his challenger.
Security is a serious problem for the election, especially in the south which is also the area where Karzai draws his main support. Taliban militants, whose strongholds have traditionally been in the south and east, have called for a boycott and vowed to disrupt the poll with attacks on polling stations.
The United Nations has said violence and intimidation could reduce turnout in the south. That, in turn, could increase the likelihood of a run-off by reducing Karzai’s support.
Karzai was first installed in 2001 by an internationally brokered agreement after the fall of the Taliban, and then won the country’s first democratic presidential election in a single round in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote.
He has long been seen as the front-runner against a divided opposition, with many regional chieftains having thrown their support behind him, including powerful ethnic Uzbek and Hazara ex-guerrilla commanders who won a combined 22 percent of the vote in 2004.
But Britain’s ambassador in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said last week that the competitiveness of the election had taken diplomats by surprise.
“I think it’s genuinely in the balance as to whether there will be a second round,” Sedwill said. (Editing by Paul Tait and Andrew Roche)