No other topic is of interest for Kabul’s chattering classes these days than the upcoming presidential election. The making and breaking of political and electoral alliances, the likely candidates and the expected winner are discussed threadbare as the Afghans prepare for their third presidential election since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
This would be the first election in which Hamid Karzai, who has been in power since December 2001 and was the winner of the previous two presidential polls in 2004 and 2009, won’t be a candidate due to the constitutional bar on contesting for a third term. The contest is, therefore, wide open and the emerging scenarios provide endless points of discussion.
The nominations for the polls due on April 5, 2014 opened on September 16, but the important candidates are taking their time to file papers as last-minute bargaining is going on to reach agreement on the consensus candidate for the president and the two vice-presidents. The new conditions put in place by the Independent Election Commission for presidential candidates, including the need to obtain 100,000 signatures from supporters from multiple provinces across the country, is also proving a hurdle for some of the weaker candidates.
October 6 is the last date for filing nominations and only one significant candidate, Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and until now the head of the high-profile Transitional Coordination Committee that oversees the security transition from the Nato to the Afghan forces, has formally entered the race. He also contested the 2009 election and failed to make an impact as most of the Pakhtuns voted for President Hamid Karzai, who at the time was the more formidable Pakhtun candidate than Ahmadzai. However, Ahmadzai seems better prepared this time and could get more Pakhtuns on his side if the Karzai camp fails to agree on another stronger Pakhtun candidate.
One more candidate who quite early made up his mind to stand for president is the former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah. During a recent meeting with this writer in Kabul, Dr Abdullah had made it clear that he would definitely contest the election. This meant he would be in the race even if the newly formed Electoral Coalition, put together by the two opposition alliances including the National Coalition of Afghanistan (NCA) led by him and the Afghanistan National Front (ANF) headed by former vice-president Ahmad Zia Masood, younger brother of late mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masood, didn’t select him as its consensus candidate.
And this is exactly what has happened as Dr Abdullah filed his nomination papers on October 1 and soon afterwards some of the Electoral Coalition leaders such as the Uzbek warlord General Abdur Rasheed Dostum and late mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masood’s brother Ahmad Zia Masood, who served as vice-president with Karzai from 2004-2009, refused to endorse his candidature.
Despite disagreements in opposition ranks, Dr Abdullah is an important candidate due to his impressive performance against the incumbent, President Karzai, in the 2009 election when he obtained 32 percent of the vote. He still believes he could have won had Karzai not rigged the polls. Dr Abdullah has tried to strike a balance by selecting a Pakhtun, Engineer Khan Mohammad of a faction of Hezb-e-Islami led by Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal as his running mate for the office of the first vice-president and the Hazara powerbroker Mohammad Mohaqiq for the second vice-president.
It is tricky to balance the ticket in Afghanistan due to its ethnicity-based politics as only a Pakhtun, or to a lesser extent a Tajik, can aspire to become the president due to their higher share in the country’s population. The minority Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmens stand no chance of getting elected as president.
Dr Abdullah’s unilateral move to contest the election has caused a split in the opposition ranks and damaged efforts for putting up a single candidate against President Karzai’s nominee. The anti-Karzai opposition failed to evolve into a cohesive bloc and is falling apart even before the formal launching of the election campaign. The hope that a non-Pakhtun candidate could finally win the election has been shattered following the split in the opposition camp.
Another major shortcoming of the opposition alliance is the absence of members of the majority Pakhtun ethnic group in its ranks. It is largely composed of non-Pakhtun political groups and warlord-power brokers from northern Afghanistan who abhor the Taliban and cannot have any attraction for Pakhtun voters. Some of the Pakhtun politicians, including former interior minister Hanif Atmar and Karzai’s elder brother Qayyum Karzai, pulled out of the opposition alliance as they argued that it was organized on the basis of ethnicity and regionalism and didn’t have Pakhtun representation.
Some other candidates keen to contest the presidential election despite their weak position include Dr Anwarul Haq Ahady, presently the commerce minister and leader of the Pakhtun nationalist Afghan Mellat party, Qutbuddin Hilal who recently defected from former mujahideen leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami and is now ready to become part of the present political system instead of fighting it, and female lawmaker Fauzia Kufi from Badakhshan. Former interior minister Hanif Atmar is another important contender and his Pakhtun roots and experience in the government give him an advantage over some of the candidates. However, he would need the backing of the Pakhtun power brokers or a political group other than his new Rights and Justice Party to be able to mount a strong challenge for the presidency.
Then there are others who are forever in the news as they have presidential ambitions, but lack grassroots support in Afghanistan. They are sometimes referred to as ‘doctors without borders’ and include the likes of Dr Zalmai Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, the former interior minister Dr Ali Ahmad Jalali and even Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. As technocrats with dual nationality, they need support from one of the major political blocs to be able to become serious contenders for the job. They and some other hopefuls have also been talking of forging ‘a national consensus’ to field the best candidate to protect the national interest. However, achieving a national consensus or giving up one’s ambition for the sake of a better candidate is always going to be an impossible proposition in Afghanistan.
The waiting game is on for Karzai to make his choice of candidate. The opposition has sometimes unfairly criticized him for wanting to delay the election to stay in power or rig it in favor of his nominee. There is no evidence yet that he is planning such a move. But the opposition figures, having mostly served in the Karzai cabinet in the recent past, continue to doubt his sincerity and are wary of his intentions.
If Karzai is concerned about his legacy, he would ensure a timely and free and fair presidential election. With this objective in mind, he would have to stay neutral instead of backing a candidate. Besides, his support for a particular candidate may not guarantee success as Karzai is now on the way out with diminishing political influence. He is no longer popular and is in a weaker position to strike the kind of political and patronage-based deals with warlords and ethnic power brokers that enabled him to emerge victorious.
Karzai has been accused of promising support to several of his ministers and allies, including former mujahideen leader Prof Sayyaf, for contesting the presidential polls, though it seems some of these hopefuls made such claims on their own to boost their candidature. Lately, the media in Afghanistan has been speculating that Karzai has opted for his foreign minister Dr Zalmai Rassoul, a Pakhtun physician from Karzai’s native province Kandahar and belonging to the former ruling Mohammadzai Durrani family that gave a number of kings to Afghanistan. He lived for a number of years in Italy as an aide to former King Zahir Shah and also served in hospitals in Saudi Arabia.
Zalmai Rassoul has the reputation of an honest man, but lacks charisma and isn’t known as a man of the masses. Even if Karzai endorses him, he would still need to endear himself to the electorate, particularly the Pakhtuns, and make smart electoral alliances to become a top contender for the president’s job.
The writer is resident editor of The News International in Peshawar, Pakistan. Click here to go to the original.