May Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

As was widely anticipated, Afghanistan’s landmark presidential election that is supposed to lead to a peaceful transition of power for the first time in the country’s history failed to produce a winner in the first round held on April 5.

A run-off election on June 7 between the two leading vote-getters, Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, will now decide the next president for a five-year term. Both are doctors — the first an ophthalmologist who fought against the Soviet-occupying forces in the 1980s and then the Taliban in the 1990s, before becoming a full-time politician and serving as foreign minister under Hamid Karzai. His opponent, Dr Ashraf Ghani, with a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University is married to a Lebanese Christian and has served as an economist at the World Bank and is the author of a book titled, Fixing Failed States.

In fact, they were the best candidates in a field of eight. Both have ample experience in different fields and are keen to make war-ravaged Afghanistan more peaceful and less corrupt. However, it would be unfair to expect too much from them. Aghanistan is percieved as one of the three most corrupt nations in the world and is still largely dependent on foreign aid. Having served as ministers in Karzai’s government in his first term from 2004-2009, Dr Abdullah as the foreign minister and Dr Ashraf Ghani as the finance minister, the two cannot absolve themselves of blame resulting from flawed government policies during that period. In fact, many have been questioning their ability to bring any real change in Afghanistan in view of their past record as ministers, even though Dr Abdullah has been campaigning under the slogan of “hope and change,” and Dr Ashraf Ghani has drawn up the best manifesto among all the presidential candidates.

In the absence of Karzai, who couldn’t contest for a third term as required by Afghanistan’s constitution, Dr Abdullah put behind him his loss to the incumbent president in the 2009 election and surged ahead of his seven rivals to poll 29,73,706 votes, constituting an impressive 44.9 per cent of the vote bank. It was an appreciable improvement on his 2009 electoral performance when he had received almost 32 per cent of the votes and lost to President Karzai in an election mired in controversy and fraud. Dr Abdullah could have won outright in the first round if he had obtained another six per cent of the vote. In the second round, he would have an easier task than Dr Ashraf Ghani, who polled 20,82,417 votes that constituted 31.5 per cent of the total. Though Dr Ghani also remarkably improved the tally of his votes compared to 2009 when he generated just three per cent of the vote, he would still need to do a lot better to overcome the 13 per cent deficit against Dr Abdullah to be able to have a shot at the presidential seat.

It is true that Dr Abdullah had an advantage over his seven Pashtun rivals, as he was the only candidate representing the non-Pashtuns. The Pashtun vote was split, with Dr Ghani, Dr Zalmay Rassoul (11.5 per cent) and Professor Abdur Rab Rasul Sayyaf (7.1 per cent) getting most of the votes from their fellow Pashtuns. Dr Ashraf Ghani would be banking largely on the Pashtun vote to win the run-off election as the only remaining presidential candidate from his community. The Pashtun vote won’t split this time and Dr Ashraf Ghani would do much better than the first time round, in view of the past record of Afghans from various ethnic groups mostly voting on the basis of ethnicity.

Though Dr Abdullah has claimed all along that he too is a Pashtun — he has a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother — the majority of Pashtuns find it difficult to accept his claim because he was a close aide to the late mujahideen leader and Tajik warlord, Ahmad Shah Masoud, and has been a stalwart of the former Northern Alliance made up of mostly non-Pashtun groups and individuals. He has a home in the Tajik-populated Panjsher Valley and has often represented the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-i-Islami and Shura-i-Nazaar. Keeping this in view, Dr Abdullah selected a Pashtun — Engineer Khan Mohammad of the Arghandiwal faction of former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami — to be his running-mate as the first vice-president to attract the Pashtun vote. It didn’t work as the Pashtuns continued to distrust Dr Abdullah and his team. To his credit though, Dr Abdullah learnt to speak fluent Pashto and travelled widely in the Pashtun areas to win their trust and votes.

Dr Abdullah’s second running mate, Mohammad Mohaqqiq, expectedly did well to lure the votes from his Hazara Shia community. He is arguably the most influential Hazara politician having obtained 10 per cent of the vote in the presidential election in 2004. As a cleric and former warlord, he proved helpful to Dr Abdullah in the first round and could help him clinch the vote in the second as well.

Dr Ghani too made a smart but controversial move by picking the Uzbek warlord, General Abdur Rasheed Dostum, to be his running mate for the office of first vice president. However, he faced widespread criticism for joining hands with someone known for committing major violations of human rights and for frequently changing sides in Afghanistan’s protracted civil war. Dostum, a former factory worker has, at various stages, sided with different parties: communists, mujahideen, Northern Alliance, pro-West elements led by Karzai, as well as opposition groups critical of Karzai. At different periods, he has also been close to Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, India and Turkey. True to the meaning of his name, Dostum has been a friend of anyone willing to befriend him — though his friendships have been short-lived and opportunistic. Aware of the criticism of his move as it went against his promise of good governance, Dr Ashraf Ghani managed to do some damage control by persuading Dostum to seek forgiveness from the Afghan people for his past conduct.

His choice of former minister, Sarwar Danish (a Shia Hazara politician), as his second running mate may not have won him many Hazara votes, but it helped him balance his ticket by giving representation to the most oppressed ethnic group in Afghanistan. Dr Ghani also made a concerted effort to drop his image as a technocrat, aloof from the masses, by visiting different parts of the country and interacting with as many people as possible. Often, he changed from western suits to the traditional Afghan shalwar-kameez and turban, grew a small beard, frequently referred to the strong Islamic character of the Afghan people and promised to ‘Islamise’ the Afghan security forces. He would certainly need more of all this in the second round while seeking votes from the largely conservative Pashtun population.

Prior to the second round, the verdict of the Elections Complaints Commission (ECC) with regard to the complaints it received, could affect the first round results. Most of the complaints — 112 to be exact — have been registered by the campaign staff of Dr Abdullah, who still believes he could achieve outright victory in the first round — if his reservations were addressed. Eight complaints with regard to invalid votes and the shortage of ballot papers at many polling stations on April 5 have been judged serious enough by the ECC to affect the outcome of the vote. Specifically, 100,000 votes were declared invalid in the Herat province and Dr Abdullah’s camp feels most of these votes were cast for their candidate. However, most election observers maintain that the final results of the first-round of polling to be declared on May 14 after hearing of complaints, won’t decisively alter the outcome, and the run-off election would invariably have to be held on June 7. Earlier, the second round was to take place on May 28, but more time has now been given to make preparations for printing and transporting the ballot papers to every part of the country.

Whoever becomes the next president of the country — ruled by only one leader (Karzai) in the post-Taliban period over the past 12 years — it is remarkable regardless, that a peaceful political transition is becoming a possibility after more than three decades of conflict and violent change of regimes during which most of the rulers were eliminated. In case the loser in the run-off election accepts the results and agrees to become a strong opposition leader, Afghanistan would have taken giant steps towards becoming a mature democracy. As many as 68,92,816 voters were able to cast their votes, double the numbers of the 2009 turnout but less than the 2004 presidential election, when the Afghans were voting for the first time in a free poll of this scale and had high hopes of democracy. According to IEC figures, 64 per cent of those who voted were males and 36 per cent females. The number of female voters was impressive by Afghanistan’s standards, but still far less than the males.

Two issues would confront the new president soon after taking office. The first is the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US that Karzai refused to sign in the end, after having indicated all along that he wanted it to ensure continued US and western military and economic assistance for his war-torn country in return for allowing residual American forces presence at around nine military bases. Both Dr Abdullah and Dr Ghani have promised to sign it so this won’t be an issue, even though the agreement would apparently become a hurdle in making peace with the Taliban, who have been demanding the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country. And this would be the second challenge for the new president, as all efforts by Karzai to draw the Taliban into the peace process and a power-sharing deal have failed until now. Without securing peace through political means, Afghanistan would continue to suffer bloodshed and instability, which would make it even more difficult to stop the rapid decline of its economy and reduce the dependence on foreign aid.

As for the Taliban, they would like Dr Abdullah to become the next president because it would make it easier for them to motivate the Pashtuns to side with them against the country’s non-Pashtun ruler and continue the fight.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2014 issue.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.