A Bridge Too Far?
Legitimacy of the Afghan general elections – and of the eventual winner – will be of utmost importance, given the uncertainty that surrounds the entire process.
On April 5, 2014 Afghanistan will witness a milestone. For the first time in the country’s history there will be a democratic transition from one head of state and government to another – the constitution of Afghanistan forbids the incumbent Hamid Karzai from running for another term. This fact in itself will make the presidential elections more significant.
Afghanistan has never had a peaceful transition before. The third since the fall of the Taliban regime, these elections come at a time when uncertainty prevails in the country. President Karzai has still not signed the Bilateral Security Agreement, which will see thousands of coalition troops stay on in the country in training and advisory capacity. The country’s relations with the United States can be termed as shaky at best.
The U.S. has already cut in half its aid to Afghanistan and, with a major withdrawal in the offing, the consequences of this aid decrease are yet to be felt. These elections will also be the last under a strong foreign military and civilian presence and will certainly foreshadow future political and ethnic alignments. Their effects on the continuing Taliban insurgency have also to be seen, especially since the Taliban have vowed to disrupt the elections and prevent people from voting.
Eleven candidates will contest the upcoming elections; they range from former technocrats to the person who first invited Osama bin Laden to the country to a grandson of former King Zahir Shah.
The most important and serious contender for slot of president is the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. An ophthalmologist who was also a prominent member of the anti-Soviet resistance, Dr. Abdullah is of mixed Pashtun and Tajik lineage. This makes him the only candidate
who has a strong appeal for both the Pashtun and non-Pashtun ethnic constituencies. He was close to Ahmed Shah Masood, the assassinated leader of the Northern Alliance and later joined the Karzai government as its foreign minister. He resigned the post in 2005 and emerged as the only serious contender to Karzai in the 2009 elections, but he withdrew in the second round.
His party, the Coalition for Change and Hope, won 90 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections and became the largest opposition party. With a strong grassroots-level organization and support, Abdullah stands a good chance of winning the elections. But his closeness to the erstwhile Northern Alliance might unite the politically suspicious Pashtuns behind a Pashtun candidate if the elections go for a runoff, leading to Abdullah’s defeat.
With a modern outlook and international experience, Abdullah is considered pro-West, but the electoral dynamics of the country might align with the more cautious and conservative warlords who control significant voting blocks. This may compromise some of his plans. Abdullah is also opposed to talks with the Taliban and has already suffered fatal attacks on his aides. His closeness with India is a cause for concern for Pakistan, a country with significant interest in Afghanistan, and his election will certainly further complicate the already very tense and fractious relationship between Kabul and Islamabad.
Another strong candidate is Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai who, with stints at the World Bank, a doctorate from Columbia and extensive lecturing experience in the West, is an experienced technocrat. That said, he only received 3 percent votes in 2009 and therefore has a weak political base. This time, however, he has aligned himself with a powerful warlord – Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose solid support in the Pashtun vote bank could make Ahmedzai the consolidated choice of the Pashtuns in a runoff election. But his alliance with Dostum – accused of several war crimes – will certainly dilute his proreform credentials and compromise his standing among the more educated and liberal Afghans – his natural constituency.
The candidature of Qayoum Karzai is also an interesting addition to the election scenario and might become significant if the incumbent Karzai decides to throw his weight behind his brother (Hamid Karzai has yet to declare his support for any candidate). However, with no public support by Hamid Karzai for Qayoum, and the latter’s staunch support for a deal with the United States – something his brother wants renegotiated – this contender seems like a weak option. Qayoum does not have the political charisma of his younger brother and also lacks the anti-Soviet resistance stamp to distinguish him from other candidates.
As a matter of fact, he was running restaurants in the U.S. till the fall of the Taliban government and only returned to the country afterwards. His stint in the parliament also ended in despair and his apparent reliance on his family name and connections cannot take him too far. He has also been bogged down by scandals which have badly affected his family. He could, however, be the spoiler in the first round, forcing a second round on the leading candidate, Dr. Abdullah.
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf is the man who gave the militant Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines his name. He invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan after the U.S. attacked Al-Qaeda hideouts in Sudan and was considered the ‘mentor’ to Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, reportedly, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. He is the most controversial of the candidates. He was educated at Cairo’s Al Azhar University and was a leading mujahidin commander in the 1980s. He has had close ties with both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but despite his conservatism, is opposed to the Taliban. He has little chance of success due to a weak political base but could win a number of votes due to his alignment with a popular former militia leader, Ismail Khan, who was also governor of western Herat.
The other candidates, such as Zalmay Rasul, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, Gul Agha Sherzai and Nader Naim, a grandson of King Zahir Shah, have pockets of support which will hardly dent the outcome.
In addition to the various challenges that the new president is going to face, the very act of holding elections in Afghanistan is fraught with complications. Around 12 million Afghans, out of a population of more than 30 million, are eligible to vote. However, with unreliable voter registration cards and the absence of photos on voter cards of hundreds of women voters ( due to cultural and religious sensibilities), the chances of rigging are high.
Further, while the current winter has not been very harsh, all voting stations are not very accessible and the boycott and threats by the Taliban may deter people from turning up to vote. The legitimacy of these elections – and of the eventual winner – will therefore be of utmost importance.
Afghanistan is already beset with many problems and these are expected to increase in the coming months and years. Therefore, the forthcoming elections are perhaps the most significant in the post-Taliban era and will chart the future trajectory of the country. With no clear candidate poised to win easily, the coast is wide open – competitive, adventurous and yet as scary as most of Afghan history.