Over 12 million voters are expected to cast their votes in Saturday’s Afghan Presidential Election, in what is being widely termed as a watershed moment for the future of the Afghan political system. As election campaigning reaches its peak leading candidates are holding rallies in major cities, and dominating every segment of the television and radio programs in the country.
This election is significant for two reasons. First, the outcome of the election is expected to set up the post-transition and post-US withdrawal Afghanistan. It will not only determine the make-up of the future government, but also the legitimacy of the political system, and the nature of the country’s relations with the United States and the West.
Second, the election marks the culmination of Hamid Karzai's presidency. Karzai, who has been at the helm of the Afghan state for the post-Taliban years, is barred from re-election by the Afghan constitution. The country now has the opportunity and the challenge to experience a non-violent transfer of power for the first time in its modern history.
In recent years, Karzai has been preoccupied with political stagnation in domestic affairs, and international bewilderment over the government’s political posturing towards the Taliban insurgency. Karzai has repeatedly called the Taliban his “unhappy brethren”, refused NATO assistance in fighting off Taliban attacks against Afghan National Army outposts and released hundreds of Taliban prisoners, many of who have now rejoined the anti-government insurgency. His rule has also been marred by accusations of large-scale corruption and the rise of an Afghan narco-economy.
At the onset of the election, the relationship between the Karzai government and the West, especially the United States, is anything but friendly — Karzai is refusing to sign the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Strategic Agreement.
The Afghan Independent Election Commission has released a final list of 11 candidates, who by and large, are faces that have dominated the Afghan government for the last 13 years. All the candidates are Pashtun. Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek politicians are vying for the roles of vice presidents. Four of the 11 candidates stand out and are likely to attract the bulk of the votes.
Abdullah Abdullah was Karzai’s main rival in the 2009 election. He is half-Tajik, half-Pashtun. He was a right-hand man to the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud during the anti-Soviet war and the Afghan civil war. In the post-Taliban period, he was the Afghan Foreign Minister from 2001 to 2005 and was a leader of the transitional process. He is a contender to replace Karzai, but has openly and meticulously expressed his reservations about the possibility of “massive industrial-scale fraud” in the election.
Abdullah’s running mates are warlords Mohammad Mohaqqeq and Ahmad Khan. Ironically, the three partners belong to the three main belligerent parties of the civil war over Kabul that left the city in ruins and 60,000 civilians dead. On the one hand, this could be a good omen that the warring parties have come together. On the other hand, it is demonstrative of how little change the Afghan political landscape has undergone in the last 13 years.
If the Afghan election were a job interview process, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai would be the candidate with the most impressive resume. He is articulate, vocal and his campaign has been very media-savvy. He is an academic, former World Bank official, a former political lobbyist, former Afghan finance minister, long term advisor to President Karzai, head of the transitional process, and one of the true all-rounders of Afghan politics.
Ahmadzai has been one of the key figures responsible for the evolution of the post-Taliban Afghan political process. He ranked fourth in the 2009 election, securing only 3 per cent of the votes. In 2014, he has chosen to abandon his blunt criticism of the warm relations between Karzai and warlords, by choosing Uzbek strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum as his running-mate. Dostum has been accused of war crimes and the massacre of Taliban prisoners in 2001.
Zalmai Rassoul is Karzai’s favored candidate. He is a medical doctor, former Afghan Foreign Minister and the most passive and soft-spoken contender in the election. He is also a royalist, and is close to the former King Zahir Shah. The Afghan Independent Election Commission has alleged that state resources have been used in the service of Rassoul’s election campaign.
Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf is the least photogenic and perhaps, the most notorious of the leading candidates. He is alleged to have invited Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan, mentored the Abu Sayyaf militants, and been directly involved in one of the worst massacres in the Afghan civil war. He has been close to Karzai in recent years, winning key governorships and appointments for his party members. Sayyaf has vowed to establish a “truly Islamic system” if he is elected to power.
Whether the last 13 years of Afghan politics is deemed a success or a failure, the period bears heavy imprints of all the leading candidates. Afghanistan’s fragile state has been a collective work, and the presidential candidates have each played a significant role.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb Islami, secondary partners in the insurgency, has encouraged its supporters to take part in the election, but the Taliban have vowed to disrupt the poll.
On 2 April, the bodies of 10 people, including an election candidate, were recovered. They had been kidnapped three days earlier by the Taliban in the northern Sar-e Pul province. On the same day, 10 people were wounded in an explosion in Kandahar and at least four were killed in a suicide attack on the Ministry of Interior in the heart of Kabul.
On 20 March, on the eve of the Afghan New Year, a well-organised Taliban attack on the 5-Star Serena Hotel in Kabul left nine dead. Among them were Afghan journalist Ahmad Sardar, his wife and two young children. Sardar is survived by his 3-year old son, who was seriously injured in the attack.
A week later, Taliban attackers targeted a Kabul guesthouse frequented by western aid workers. Taliban suicide bombers have also attacked the headquarters of the Independent Election Commission, setting the offices on fire.
Citing security and logistical concerns, the Afghan authorities announced that across the country, 748 polling centres will remain closed on the day of the election. A further 352 are at risk.
A recent survey by the monitoring organisation Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) found that only a quarter of Afghanis expect the election to be clean. Vote rigging and ballot fraud has marred every election in the post-Taliban era.
In the most recent presidential election in 2009, the UN estimated that as many as one in five ballots may have been compromised. There were wide scale accusations of intimidation and out-right ballot stuffing. In the central province of Ghazni, Pashtuns, who comprise half of the province's population, were deprived of their votes by violence.
As a result all representatives from Ghazni were from the Hazara minority, who could lay no claim to representing half of the provincial population either by vote or by ethnicity. Former UN diplomat Peter Galbraith later claimed that "As many as 30 per cent of Karzai's votes were fraudulent, and lesser fraud was committed on behalf of other candidates”.
Pre-election cries of vote rigging and fraud can set the scene for a muddy post-election showdown between the leading candidates. In addition to that, these accusations can do irreparable damage to the political process and have the potential to delegitimise the entire election process — something that is to the detriment of any and all candidates. The election is a process that the people of Afghanistan cannot afford to lose, even though it is likely to disappoint them.
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