At The Croassroads
As the Afghan nation goes to the polls for the second round, it is feared that the voting patterns will be more ethnic than issue-based.
Voting patterns in the second round of elections will be more ethnic than issue-based.
The endgame of the Afghan presidential elections is getting closer with the announcement of the final result that placed Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani face-to-face in a run-off to be held in mid-June. Out of the eight presidential hopefuls, none managed to secure the required vote count of more than 50 percent to reach victory in the first round. The initial euphoria regarding the high turnout was somehow overshadowed by the uncertainty surrounding the political transition and the allegations of election fraud by rival sides.
As per the final results, Dr. Abdullah finished first with 45 percent votes followed by Dr. Ghani with around 32 percent votes. The Constitution of Afghanistan requires that if none of the candidates receives more than fifty percent votes in the initial round of the elections, the top two candidates in the race have to face a run-off. The multiplicity of contenders divided the vote bank, thus blocking an outright victory in the first round for all. A deep insight into the dynamics of Afghan politics shows that too many candidates caused more harm to the vote bank of Dr. Ghani than to that of Dr. Abdullah’s. Except for Dr. Abdullah, all other candidates picked up votes from constituencies which were thought to be Dr. Ghani’s strongholds.
Now that a run-off election is around the corner, both Abdullah and Ghani have stepped up efforts to coopt the drop-out candidates, especially those having a modest percentage of votes. As of now, Dr. Zalmai Rassoul and Gul Agha Sherzai, the former governor of Nangarhar, have joined Abdullah’s team. However, this does not mean that they will bring with them their entire vote bank too as most of their key supporters have already given up their respective teams in favor of Dr. Ghani. Yet, the real votes are in the hands of the Afghan people who seem to have little allegiance to their presumed leaders.
Afghanistan stands at a crossroads during this election. Unfortunately, the evolution of Afghan politics over the past several decades has somehow polarized the nation along ethnic and linguistic lines. As the Afghans go to the polls for the second round, it is feared that the voting patterns will be more ethnic than issue-based. The Pashtuns are more inclined to vote for Ghani while the Tajik minority will stand behind Abdullah. Similarly, the Uzbeks will vote for Ghani while the Hazaras might be divided between Abdullah and Ghani because their leaders are present in both parties.
Although such voting behavior is not a good omen for national unity, the last 30 years of wars and conflicts have polarized the Afghan society along ethnic lines and this is now the reality of Afghan power politics. One aspect which is encouraging though is the apparent neutrality of President Karzai himself. Support from his government machinery is divided between Abdullah and Ghani.
In spite of sporadic irregularities and misconduct, both the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Complaints Commission (CC) seem to have done a good job in a difficult
country like Afghanistan where the security environment and the difficult geographical terrain were a daunting challenge. For a young democracy that is still on its way to stability, the performance of the relevant state agencies is commendable, especially the national security forces that kept the Election Day relatively calm and secure.
Abdullah and Ghani possess two very different profiles. One feature common between both is the desire for change. Yet, the nature of change planned by both leaders is debatable. The two leaders have very different visions for the political future of Afghanistan. While Abdullah insists on empowering those who had taken an active part in the jihad against the Soviet Union and later against the Taliban, Dr. Ghani stands for a more inclusive government that will coalesce all political forces in the country, eventually paving the way for national unity.
While it is true that Dr. Abdullah has had a long-standing career in Afghan politics, his association with the Tajik-based Jamiat-i-Islami and his mainly pro-Tajik acts as a former foreign minister have tarnished his image among Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country. Dr. Ghani, on the other hand, is more of a statesman and has worldwide reputation for his international work on state building. His efforts towards the reconstruction of Afghanistan, especially his services in attracting funding for war-ravaged Afghanistan, have given him a national image. Some reasons for his lower ranking in the elections were his lack of financial resources, weak organization of his campaign team and division of his vote bank among too many contenders.
Dr. Ghani and his team has already shown high confidence and initiated renewed efforts to give a surprise in the second round by getting the required majority. Dr. Abdullah has his own assertions of outright victory in the run-off due to his psychological edge of the highest vote-taker. It looks like Dr. Abdullah’s higher percentage of votes will have a motivating effect on Ghani’s supporters, most of whom were passive supporters during the first round and did not bother to go to polling stations.
Abdullah and Ghani also differ on fundamental issues facing the country, including the peace process with the Taliban and the form of government they will inherit from Karzai. Whereas Abdullah insists on a parliamentary form of government and federalism, Dr. Ghani is more in favor of a unitary state with a presidential form of government due to the political complexity of Afghanistan while delegating more powers to the provinces instead of outright federalism. Also, Ghani, who is an economist, has a vision for regional economic integration that could ultimately help in diffusing tensions among Afghanistan and its neighbors. On the other hand, Abdullah and his team do not seem to have a similar economic vision for the region, although politically they are more organized.
The main concern during the upcoming run-off elections will be the voting pattern that is feared to be highly polarized along ethnic lines. In addition, the acceptance of the results by the losing candidate is another daunting challenge. It might be pre-mature to say who the winner of the run-off election will be, but it is certain that the upcoming political transition in Afghanistan is not without its challenges. In such a situation, rising to the occasion to ensure a peaceful transfer of power is not only the responsibility of the incumbent government and the contenders in the run-off elections, but also of the entire Afghan nation that will go to the polls with dignity and courage and is expected to exhibit a similar spirit once the results are announced.