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Afghan Presidential Elections: The Quest for Change

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  • August 19, 2009

    As a harbinger of change in a conflict ridden country, the Afghan presidential elections being held on August 20 are important for both the people of Afghanistan and the international community. Hamid Karzai’s government is seen as weak, ineffective and corrupt. During the last eight years, progress has not been commensurate with the people’s expectations. With rising insecurity and instability, the international community views a credible election as a key plank in the stabilisation of Afghanistan.

    Rising insecurity due to the spread of the Taliban insurgency, mounting civilian casualties, the inadequate reconstruction process, rising drug trade, the system of political patronage and associated problems of corruption, cronyism and weak institutions, all have drained away the initial gains made by the international community after the overthrow of the Taliban. Karzai won the country's first presidential election in 2004 with 54 per cent of the vote, but has since encountered waning public support. Time and again the credibility of his government has been questioned both by Afghans and the international community. The August 20 elections are less about the choice of a new leader than a referendum for ‘change’.

    Afghanistan defies soothsayers and is labelled a ‘graveyard of expectations’. The forthcoming elections are a case in point. In the last few months, Karzai had been projected to win the elections because of his astute political manoeuvring. He had dented the opposition by cajoling, courting, coercing and even “buying off” tribal leaders and local strongmen who control large swathes of rural Afghanistan. Such mechanisms have been effective in Afghan tribal culture where the jockeying for political power takes place through deals with local power brokers outside the formal structures. Though Karzai’s political astuteness in this regard has been viewed with scepticism by his Western allies, there has also been an unequivocal resignation to the fact that Karzai would win the elections.

    What, however, missed the Western eye was that in this process of political bargaining and striking deals with the opposition, particularly with warlords like Dostum (Uzbek), with the Taliban and with those allegedly involved in the opium trade, Karzai gained little respect among the Afghans. Moreover, it is not clear whether the deals brokered by the president’s controversial brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, to secure the support of Taliban local commanders for the voting and protection of polling stations will be in effect in areas where Hamid Karzai's opponents are popular. Further, Karzai announced that he would invite the Taliban to a Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, to try and restart stalled peace talks.

    Karzai’s ratification of the controversial Shia Personal Status Law (signed in March) that condones marital rape has raised severe domestic and international criticism by advocates of human and women’s rights. The law regulates the personal affairs of Shia Muslims (who constitute between 10 and 20 per cent of the population) was designed by a powerful radical Shia leader, Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, and supported by conservative Shia leaders in parliament. The ratification of the law before the election is seen as a move to gain the Shia vote.

    In order to appeal to the Tajik constituency, Karzai has nominated Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a former commander of the Northern Alliance, as a vice presidential running mate. This has not been viewed positively by the Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group comprising 42 per cent of the population. Their fears of Tajik domination in post 9/11 Afghanistan is not entirely unfounded. The Pushtun perceive an ethnic imbalance in the present Karazi government, in which key posts are being dominated by Tajiks even if they are relative light weights. Ethnicity and tribal linkages remain crucial in Afghanistan’s internal politics. Any imbalance that causes alienation of the dominant Pushtun group is a sure recipe for fissures and internal strife.

    Thus, as Afghanistan goes to the polls, there seems to be no clear winner in sight and there is a strong possibility of a ‘run off’. There are as many as 36 candidates in the fray. To win the presidency, a candidate must garner more than 50 per cent of the vote. If none of the candidates crosses the 50 per cent of the votes mark, the top two will contest a runoff election in early October. According to a July 2009 poll by the International Republican Institute (non-profit pro-democracy group affiliated with the Republican Party and financed by the American government), Karzai led his rivals by a wide margin, but lacked the 50 per cent of the vote necessary to avoid a ‘run-off’.

    The strongest contender is Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister and presently the candidate for the largest opposition block, the National Front. Dr. Abdullah, whose father is a Kandahari Pashtun and mother is a Tajik, has been closely associated with the Northern Alliance since the anti-Soviet jihad days. He has now transformed these old networks into an effective campaign team. He has travelled extensively and used public rallies to buttress his support base particularly in North Afghanistan. In the much publicised televised presidential debate last month, watched by an estimated 10 million Afghans, President Karzai’s conspicuous absence did not go unnoticed. Thus, widespread disillusionment coupled by the “Arg Palace Syndrome” where Karzai is increasingly distanced from the Afghan public may well propel Abdullah into a strong second-place, depriving Karzai of an easy first-round win.

    Abdullah’s show of strength would, however, require some help from another powerful contender Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who is a Pushtun. As Finance Minister, Ghani, a technocrat and temperamental persona, had managed to create a stable monetary system and set the stage for investment and development, but quit in 2004 due to disagreements with Karzai. Reports indicate that Ghani, whose campaign has slowed to a crawl, has already been bought over by Karzai.

    Although US officials have maintained a public stance of not identifying with any candidate, the elections are a test of the Obama administration’s Af-Pak strategy. The troop surge is essentially hinged on providing greater security in the South and East for the forthcoming elections, in the face of rising Taliban threats. The Taliban has warned that it will disrupt the elections, including threats of suicide bombings of polling places.

    Suicide and roadside bombings, kidnapping and intimidation are already rising in Afghanistan, all aimed at derailing the election and to oppose the increased foreign presence. There have also been attacks on candidates and their campaigns. With 74 foreign troops killed — including 43 Americans — July was the deadliest month for international forces since the start of the war in 2001.

    Voter turnout in the insurgency ravaged South and East will almost certainly be a crucial factor in the electoral outcome and as a symbolic rejection of insurgency. In some parts of the country, particularly in the Pashtun provinces of the south and east where the Taliban hold sway, up to 10 per cent of 7,000 polling stations will not even open, according to the Afghan Election Commission. The ‘functioning’ polling stations may end up attracting barely 10 per cent of registered voters due to fears of violent retribution by the Taliban who have issued such threats. While low voter turn out in the south could mean less of Pushtun vote for Karzai, Abdullah's Tajik support base in the north which enjoys much more security could mean more votes on that count.

    Observers worry that low turnout could pave the way for massive fraud where election workers would simply fill in ballots for those who do not show up. Duplicate registrations and unusually high numbers of female registrations ahead of the elections suggest this. A United Nations election monitoring report has already said that there is mounting evidence that Karzai's officials are using state resources to swing votes in his favour.

    Whatever happens on August 20, the litmus test will start two weeks later, when the preliminary results are announced. If Karzai is awarded a first-round victory, it could lead to serious, and unpredictable, consequences. Abdullah's campaign team has already warned that their supporters will not accept a Karzai win. In case of protracted elections and perception of fraudulent elections, there could be massive civil unrest. In such a scenario, Afghanistan could witness a further spike in violence and greater ethnic polarization in the days to come.