Hope and Challenge
In his 12-year rule, President Karzai mainly focused on crisis management. The new Afghan ruler will hopefully take the country towards new frontiers of development.
With all eyes on the new leadership, the Afghans look at the election process with mixed feelings of hope and uncertainty.
This year, the beginning of spring in Afghanistan will also be the beginning of the end of President Karzai’s almost 12-year rule. The Constitution of Afghanistan allows a president only two terms in office, and President Karzai has just completed his second term. One cannot overemphasize the significance of the April 2014 presidential elections due to several considerations. First and foremost, it will be the first time ever in Afghanistan’s history that power will be transferred peacefully from one elected president to another. Second, the timing of this election is highly crucial as all international forces shall be leaving the country by the end of 2014. The enduring presence of U.S. forces that will be instituted within the proposed Bilateral Security Agreement is yet to be decided.
Peace talks with the insurgents, the fight against rampant corruption, building of state institutions, accelerating the pace of reconstruction and providing an environment conducive for sustainable economic growth, are some of the recurring themes in the programs and agendas of presidential contenders. Foreign policy is another important area in which they are trying to show their capabilities to Afghan voters and the international audience.
Being a young democracy that started almost from scratch after the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001, the dynamics of politics in Afghanistan are interesting and, at times, fascinating. Twenty-eight candidates originally filed for running the presidential campaign out of which only 11 were accepted by the Independent Election Commission. Two candidates have already dropped out of the race. Nine are still in the run but the probability of further dropouts is high. After decades of civil war and instability, success in politics is not guaranteed by reaching out to the masses from party platforms or by pursuing certain political agendas. Today, becoming prominent in Afghan politics requires short-cuts. Being in high-level government positions is the easiest way to becoming prominent in Afghan politics. That also means becoming wealthy. Political corruption is one of the most serious challenges the country faces today.
In the absence of credible political parties, the Afghans give more importance to personalities. Educated Afghans might still be interested in candidates’ agendas but this election is more about who the candidates are instead of what they offer. Thus, the criteria for credibility are personal profiles of candidates – their past performance and their capability to deliver on their election promises.
The coming years will be decisive in addressing some of the key challenges that the country faces. The most pressing issue for the future leadership will be bringing the much-needed peace to the country. Without peace, there can be no security and without security no development program can succeed. That is why all candidates have placed the peace process at the top of their election agendas.
The fate of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. is yet to be determined. All presidential runners have categorically expressed their commitment to sign the BSA as soon as they take office if elected. The U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is crucial for the country’s security as well as civilian sectors. The Afghan National Security Forces – no doubt a major accomplishment during the past 12 years – can only continue through sustainable financial and technical assistance of the U.S. and its NATO allies. That is why the future Afghan leadership will give high importance to this relationship with the U.S. No compromise on relations with the U.S. seems to be feasible.
Relations with neighbors, especially Pakistan and Iran, are equally important for the future elected administration. However, friendly relations can be achieved with alternative approaches and perspectives.
During the past 12 years of President Karzai’s rule, the focus was more on crisis management. The decade ahead is that of consolidating the gains already made in various sectors. Afghanistan has been described as one of the most corrupt nations in the world by Transparency International. Improving Afghanistan’s international image will be an important task for the future Afghan leadership, especially if it expects international monetary assistance. In Tokyo, Afghanistan was pledged billions of dollars in development aid. Yet, the assistance was conditional upon the Afghan government’s performance in rooting out systemic corruption and improving governance.
Bringing change in a postconflict and war-ravaged country is a daunting task. The complexity of the dynamics of Afghan politics, its foreign aid-dependent economy, widespread corruption and ethnic divisions instigated by years of foreign intervention and civil war are the main hurdles to bringing social and economic stability. Yet, with a proper leadership in place that has both the vision and political will to lead the country in the right direction, change is very much possible and is, in fact, a common desire of all Afghans. They expect that the new political order will benefit the common man unlike that of the past decade which created millionaires and billionaires with little positive impact on the quality of life of the average Afghan. The divide between the rich and the poor widened significantly. How this gulf can be bridged is something for the future administration to handle among plenty of other challenges.
With all eyes on the new leadership, the Afghans look at the coming election process with mixed feelings of hope and uncertainty. If everything goes well, the country will have an elected ruler in place with a renewed vision and a prioritized program for peace, stability and prosperity. Yet, there are chances of the election ending in a political crisis due to the complex political environment and because of the bureaucracy’s purported intervention in favor of the candidate of its choice.
The political and economic stability of Afghanistan depends on the efficiency, legitimacy and competence of the new leadership. As of now, three candidates seem to have emerged as front-runners with Dr. Ashraf Ghani topping the list. The other two being talked of are Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Zalmay Rasool. While all the three major contenders portray more or less similar campaign slogans, Dr. Ghani goes far beyond election rhetoric and has come up with a more specific, well-defined and focused strategy for peace, nation-building and state-building.
President Karzai and his entire state machinery have a major responsibility on their shoulders. There are concerns that both Karzai and his team might be using the state machinery in favor of a particular candidate. If true, the credibility of elections will be jeopardized and that will be a major blow to the electoral process. President Karzai must ensure free and fair elections if he wants to go down in history as someone who peacefully and smoothly transferred power to a legitimate successor.
The writer is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party (Afghan Millat Party). His main area of interest is political and developmental issues.