KABUL — The Afghan presidential campaign narrowed to a field of eight men Wednesday after the grandson of the country’s last king pulled out and endorsed a front-runner less than two weeks before the vote.
Mohammad Nadir Naim said he was withdrawing for the sake of national unity and throwing his support behind former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul.
Naim, grandson of Afghanistan’s King Zahir Shah who died in 2007, spent most of his life in exile and was never considered a strong candidate in the race.
He was the third candidate to drop out, leaving eight contenders to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who is not running for the first time since the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban. Karzai is constitutionally banned from seeking a third term.
Rassoul; Abdullah Abdullah, who was Karzai’s main rival in the disputed 2009 election; and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a well-known academic and former World Bank employee, are considered the front-runners, but no one is expected to win a majority, meaning a runoff vote may be necessary.
Afghan authorities are under pressure to prevent fraud from discrediting the credibility of the upcoming vote. There were widespread allegations of ballot stuffing and vote rigging five years ago.
The new leader will guide the country after international combat troops withdraw by the end of this year, leaving the country’s security to the Afghan government. Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement with the United States that would allow thousands of foreign forces to stay in the country in a largely training and advisory role.