The leading candidates in the race to become Afghanistan’s next president have started lobbying in anticipation of a run-off with final preliminary election results on Saturday expected to show none of the eight runners winning an absolute majority. Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani – both former ministers in President Hamid Karzai’s government – share three-quarters of the votes counted so far, but voting trends show that neither will secure the 50 per cent needed to win outright. The expected run-off between the two would take place at the end of next month. Ex-foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul, who is running a distant third with 11 per cent, and former Islamist warlord Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, with 7 per cent, are emerging as the kingmakers headed into the likely second round. Access to Rassoul’s support base is seen as crucial as he is believed to have the backing of the powerful Karzai family. Both Ghani and Abdullah say the outgoing leader will have a place on their team in an advisory role. “Sayyaf is a wildcard,” said Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. “He showed surprising strength in the campaign, and his voting block is likely to remain more coherent in a second round than the coalition that stood behind Rassoul – which gives Sayyaf some bargaining power as he sits down with the Abullah and Ghani camps.” After 12 years in power, Karzai is constitutionally barred from running again. Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has already reached out to Rassoul. Ghani’s camp has refused to detail its behind-the-scenes negotiations. An Abdullah-Ghani run-off would take place in late May, unless the pair strike a deal to avoid what would be a costly and risky second round of voting. Both have said the full democratic process should be completed, a sentiment echoed by the country’s Western allies, although some observers have stated they can see the merit of a deal to swiftly move on with the political transition. There are also concerns about security and the cost – the first round was funded by Washington to the tune of over US$100 million. Restarting the entire process – some ballot boxes are carried by donkey or mule to and from remote parts of Afghanistan – means it could be July before a new president is declared. The United States has not stated publicly a preference for a candidate, content the top contenders have said they will sign a security agreement that will allow some US troops to stay behind after a December deadline for foreign forces to leave. US relations with Karzai had sharply deteriorated over the past year. One of the sticking points has been his refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement permitting the US military to stay on to train Afghan forces. With around three-quarters of the votes counted, Abdullah leads ex-World Bank economist Ghani by about 11 per cent, but he would need about nearly a million of the 1.2-1.7 million outstanding ballots to win an absolute majority. Independent Election Commission (IEC) chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani said this week the numbers showed it was unlikely there would be an outright winner in the first round. Sources close to Rassoul said they had met with Abdullah and envisage the two sides would work well together on foreign policy and the peace process with the Taliban. For years, the Taliban’s leadership has refused to negotiate directly with the government of Karzai. The Taliban says Karzai is an illegitimate leader installed by United States. Sayyaf presents himself as a voice of wisdom and a bridge between warring factions, and says peace can be reached with the Taliban if they renounce outside influence. Saturday’s final preliminary count will exclude votes being investigated for fraud, numbering up to half a million ballots. Final results are due on May 14.