Nominations for the Afghan presidency opened on September 16, 2013 and with this milestone the country formally entered the pre-election period. Over the next seven months Afghanistan will be turned into one great reality TV show, watched by the world, while the candidates practice our unique brand of politics. In the run up to nominations, the alternating announcements of electoral coalitions and rumors that the election will not happen, have given a taste of the intricate tactics involved in Afghan politics. However the 2014 poll is different from the elections in 2004 and 2009. In both of those elections the incumbent was widely expected to win. That is the one outcome which is ruled out in the 2014 election because of the bar on the President standing for a third time. This time the election scenario involves three contests rolled into one. The first contest is between those prepared to participate in the Kabul-based political system and those trying to overthrow it by force, which boils down to the Taliban versus the rest. If any candidate is elected legitimately in April 2014, it will mark a victory for those who support democratic politics. The second contest is over the nature of the elections, between those who try to ensure that there is a popular mandate and those trying to grab control of the electoral machinery to rig the elections. The third contest is the one which has been shaping up between the emerging coalitions. It boils down to the contest between palace and opposition over how different the new team in the presidency should be from that which has struggled to rule Afghanistan over the past decade. This analysis of the evolving scenario takes a look at the current state of the three contests.
The first contest – violent extremism versus Kabul-based politics
The latest generation of jihadists is fighting to overthrow the Kabul-based political system and reject the idea of trusting elections to choose Afghanistan's leader. The most famous group in the armed opposition is the Taliban. However, as the war has continued, various Afghan factions have come to operate under the Taliban flag, with backing from jihadist circles in Pakistan and what remains of Al Qaeda's international militant alliance. Although apparently marginalized less influential than before, Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbadin Hekmatyar still operates alongside those who have preferred fighting over peaceful politics. The Taliban have a clear vision of eliminating their opponents by force. The Taliban have unambiguous faith in their ideology, life style and peculiar interpretation of religion. They do not believe in democracy and still follow their distant dream to implement a “Khilafat” headed by their Amir-ul-Mominin (The leader of faithful), the notorious Mullah Mohammad Omar. They are committed to topple the fragile system and hope to dominate Afghanistan as the victorious force after the withdrawal of the US-led ISAF.
The second contest – palace politics and popular mandate versus rigging
Karzai led regime (L'ETAT C'EST MOI)
THE RUSE OF CONSENSUS CANDIDATE – ZULMAY MEDVEDEV – MOST PLAUSIBLE MAIN STRATEGY – BUT HE HAS FALL BACK STRATEGIES ALSO
President Hamid Karzai has been ruling over Afghanistan since the fall of Taliban in late 2001. With the wholehearted support of US and its international partners, he managed to lead Afghanistan over the last decade with many positive and undesirable developments.
Following the same line of his predecessors, Karzai is deeply reluctant to step down. He is busy conceiving plans about how to remain in power indirectly through his loyalists in the palace. His body language suggests that he has not really accepted that he was elected president twice for a specific time period. Instead he seems to believe that ruling over this war torn country is his God given right.
His last two elections were flawed and in 2009 his bid to win in one round was declared fraudulent. Interestingly, the world never really punished their Afghan client for his ballot stuffing and engineering of electoral results. Apparently they thought that Afghan democracy needs more time to be matured. But on the contrary, in our dealing with election-rigging the whole democratization process and achievements of the twelve-year international mission in Afghanistan are at stake.
The palace team of experienced election riggers has a lot of opportunities, including the flawed electoral system, the absence of an authentic census and voter list, millions of fake voter cards, unlimited resources with the partial administration and local governments, insecurity, a weak election commission. These are all aspects of the election they may seek to exploit so as to obtain the result they desire. There are hopes that the palace will be less willing or able to conduct as large scale centralized rigging as in 2009. Wisely, the donor community has already warned that any effort to alter the poll results will jeopardize Afghanistan's future aid prospects. The government would do well to take note. We now have a new election law and election stakeholders are working their way through a list of anti-fraud measures.
The second, tactic of Karzai is to divide and rule the opposition. Most of them have gathered in the “Electoral Alliance”. He is trying to pick them off by offering them political bribes.
At the same time Karzai has held off clearly endorsing any serious candidate to become his successor. He has multiple standby candidates who engage the various opposition strongmen in fake negotiation but are not serious about pursuing any real power sharing formula. Some see the lack of an anointed palace candidate as evidence of Karzai's clever game. It is just as plausible that Karzai and the palace have simply failed to get their inner team to agree on the so-called consensus figure.
Ultimately, if he could get away with it, Karzai would be open to alternatives to an election, like a Loya Jirga (Grand National Assembly with delegates hand-picked by the palace) or an announcement of a state of emergency by magnifying the security issues and declaring that the overall situation doesn’t support elections. He could try to buy the support of parliament for such a move through mass horse trading.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has already issued press release warning that some circles are pushing for postponement of the polls.
The third contest – coalitions versus the palace
Electoral Coalition (EC)
The newly formed Electoral Coalition is mainly composed of two previous strong opposition alliances, the Afghanistan National Front (ANF) led by Ahmad Zia Massoud and the National Coalition of Afghanistan (NCA) led by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The Electoral Alliance also includes other power brokers such as Atta Mohammad Noor, the strongman of the Northern Balkh Province.
The leaders around EC are mostly old members of the Northern Alliance who resisted Taliban occupation and helped the US led coalition oust the Taliban from power. The alliance includes a few Pashtuns. But the king-makers of the EC all belong to the non Pashtun communities, the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.
The Electoral Coalition draws its popular support through parties with significant mass base. These include Jamiat-e Islami led by Salahuddin Rabbani, the son of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, the founder of the Party killed by the Taliban in September 2011. The other mass-based parties include the People’s Unity Party of Afghanistan led by Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, the strongman of Hazaras and the Junbesh Party led by Gen. Abdur Rashid Dostum the leading strongman from the Northern Uzbek community.
Even though Dr. Abdullah Abdullah had announced his candidacy for the upcoming Presidential Elections much before the formation of the EC, now he says that he will follow the decision of the alliance on the issue of his candidacy. No one else from this alliance has yet stepped forward as the candidate to challenge the palace.
Many believe that the EC still lacks the faith, courage and enthusiasm to win the upcoming Presidential Elections. But the members of the EC have had their minds focused by the prospect of the post election situation, with the withdrawal of ISAF, the threat of takeover of Taliban by force, the growing sense of insecurity among the communities involved in the resistance against the Taliban and economic challenges. The contest is a survival issue.
The king-makers of the EC have conflicting interests on various issues. But their common minimum approach is the same. None of them trusts Karzai and all of them are afraid of Taliban.
Another fact cannot be ignored. Two important figures in today's EC were the main vote-getters for Karzai in the 2009 elections. And still he could not manage to get 51%. A palace endorsed candidate this time cannot draw on the same vote bank which Karzai used to scrape home last time.
Some critics suspect that the coalition may not survive the upcoming hectic days of the nomination process where the power-brokers face the all important question of who should be their joint candidate. This means that the electoral process is working towards a contest between Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and whoever the palace finally endorses as their preferred candidate.
Doctors without Borders
This is the name given to the team led by Dr. Zulmai Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Kabul and Iraq, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai former Cabinet Minister. Ali Ahmad Jalali, the former Interior Minister (also an American citizen) and Qayoum Karzai, the elder brother of President Karzai. All of them wished to become the next president but none of them has any mass support to pose a reasonable challenge to the EC.
They have been busy in trying to win the support of strongmen from non-Pashtun communities. But at the end of the day it seems that they are not successful to do so.
Right and Justice Party
The Party is led by Hanif Atmar, the former Cabinet Minister. At its formation two years back the party which mainly consisted of the defectors from other parties. It has grown up to the level where it should be taken seriously. But still many believe that it lacks the mass support to have a chance in the presidential elections. Although, Atmar has been in the opposition, he has refrained from joining any non-Pashtun led opposition alliance - neither the ANF nor the NCA.
His reluctance to join those main opposition alliances could be due to his ambition to lead the opposition or a probable fear of provocation Pashtuns by shaking hands with the anti Taliban figures or parties. Nevertheless he was an active member of the Consultative Council of 23 opposition Political parties, most of them now in the EC. Atmar is a resilient politician and a talented technocrat who has tried desperately to gain the support of the same king-makers of the non Pashtun communities but has so far been unsuccessful. He has another problem which is not usually discussed on the open forums. He belongs to the Eastern province of Laghman. The elders of Southern Pashtun tribes seem to be reluctant to shift power from South to East although both are Pashtuns.
Afghanistan Social Democratic Party (Afghan Millat)
It is led by Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady, the current Minister of Commerce. Afghan Millat has a long history in Afghan Politics. The Party is famous for its ultra Pashtun ethnocentrism but it denies the perception and claims that the party has a comprehensive national agenda.
Afghan Millat has good support among the Pashtun liberals and educated class. But Dr. Ahady's misfortune is that the class does not have any decisive role for the time being in shaping Pashtun politics. He has also announced he is a candidate. On the other hand president Karzai is blamed for the fragmentation of the party into various factions. In brief the Party is not in a position to emerge as a significant player of this process
There are few more alliances and parties wish to play role in the process but for the time being most of the analysts don’t believe any significant role from smaller groups.
We can draw six main conclusions from this review of the election scenario.
Firstly, the political system operating in Kabul is a hybrid one in which both political parties and regional power-brokers play a key role in mobilizing electoral support. Despite ten years of effort by the Afghan government to restrict the growth of political parties and to malign them as responsible for the conflict, Afghan parties have survived. The government's attempt to establish a non-party system has failed.
Secondly, President Karzai seems set to become Afghanistan's Musharraf. The presidential palace has failed to come up with a credible succession strategy. Neither have they found a way of keeping Karzai in power nor have they found a viable candidate who can keep together the hotchpotch of interests which have gathered in the palace in recent years. Like Musharraf, Karzai has a strong sense of self-importance and seems determined to scheme until the end. But the President and the world are on course to discover that, just like Musharraf, Karzai is dispensable.
Thirdly, the main focus for Karzai's political scheming has now become his effort to break up the Electoral Alliance. So far all efforts to seduce its members have failed and this is starting to look like Karzai's toughest political challenge.
Fourth, postponing the election, long favored by some palace players as a way of staying on in power a bit longer, seems no longer a serious option. Courtiers periodically raise alarms about security in the Pashtun south, argue that elections are impossible or float ideas of a transitional government. But the momentum in the country towards elections has built up and Afghanistan's international donors have signaled that they will not tolerate messing with the timetable. Elections are never pretty, but they are better than any available alternative.
Fifth, the electoral arithmetic is such that Afghanistan now has a real prospect of electing a non-Pashtun president. This of course would go directly against the oft-stated assumption that only a Pashtun is fit to run the country. Karzai's legacy may well end up by a mixture of blame and credit as the Pashtun who handed power to someone from the north. If a non-Pashtun is elected, it will be as a result of the palace's botched attempts at divide and rule.
Sixth, precisely because palace scheming has not yet delivered a convincing political strategy to assure continuity there is still a risk of Karzai reverting to his spoiling behavior with gross interference in the electoral process. Friends of Afghanistan would be well-advised to be ready to deal with this eventuality. Afghanistan's lawful opposition faces the same dilemma – their political strategy must include contingency planning for dealing with presidential sabotage of the process. Naivety does not pay in Afghanistan.