Afghanistan’s Presidential Election 2014

The Long Road to April 

In less than a week, Afghanistan will be heading to the polls to elect a new President. This will be the country’s first democratic leadership change, and third national election since the fall of the Taliban and its ouster in 2001.

But the timing of this Spring election will be key: the voting in of a new government is taking place at a decisive juncture in the region’s history, eight months ahead of the deadline for the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to draw-down combat missions in Afghanistan, where they have been deployed for over a decade. With the Afghan Taliban’s refusal to recognize the elections and the heightened momentum of violent insurgency, questions of legitimacy will continue to dog the new administration that comes to power. In the last three weeks alone, the Taliban have mounted at least four major coordinated attacks on Kabul.

Conducting elections amidst hope and violence is also a major test for the Karzai-led administration, presently under domestic and external fire for not signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US that could allow residual forces to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. President Karzai’s refusal to sign seemingly stems from a last-ditch effort to define his legacy as a sovereign nationalist, and is tied to his decision to reside in Kabul after the election.

In neighbouring Pakistan, the worry surrounding post-2014 scenarios is rooted in a shared, often deadly, history of conflict spillover. The militant rise of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the tribal areas and its growing sanctuary in eastern Afghanistan has shifted Islamabad’s stakes in a peaceful transition in Kabul. This existential threat to Pakistan has prompted a civilian-led consensus to push for a ‘no favourites’ policy in the Afghan endgame, manifesting itself in unprecedented overtures towards the Northern Alliance.

A string of prisoner releases by Pakistan at the behest of President Karzai since 2013, as well as support extended to the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) to facilitate a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, are just some of the indicators that have showcased the shift in Pakistan’s strategic speak. Acceptance of this policy shift continues to face roadblocks in Kabul, in part owing to the long shadow cast by Islamabad’s support for the Taliban in the 1990s and the continuing presence of the Haqqani Network in the borderlands.

For policy makers in Pakistan and the wider region, the lack of a BSA is a problem. With a complete pullout of international troops from Afghanistan, the ability of the fledgling Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to sustain the security gains made over the years, while overcoming challenges of morale collapse, desertion and indiscipline, remains an unknown variable. A return to civil war conditions and ungoverned spaces in eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan has equally worrisome implications for transnational militancy in the region.

Despite continuing distrust in Kabul and President Karzai’s own mercurial finger pointing across the border, the health of the Pak-Afghan bilateral relationship under a new Kabul administration will determine regional stability after the ISAF pullout.  Pakistan’s concerns will now have to factor in a new Presidency which may find blaming Pakistan easier than taking responsibility for its own inability to govern and police large swathes of Afghan territory.

With a now belated BSA hanging over the Afghan Presidency, and 55,000 NATO troops scheduled to depart within a constricted timeframe, the new leader and his administration will be tested on multiple fronts. In the absence of a regional agreement to prevent future proxy wars, Afghan stability will depend on more than political reconciliation. Consolidating control over an ethnically fragmented country and repairing a hemorrhaging postwar economy unable to finance the state will remain a perennial challenge.

Constitutionally barred from contesting a third term, the outgoing Afghan president has refrained from openly backing a single candidate, although the inclusion of his brother Qayuum Karzai in the political fray has raised questions about the Palace’s ostensibly non-partisan posturing. After Qayuum Karzai and former defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak withdrew their respective candidatures in early March (the former announcing a joint partnership with Pushtun nominee Zalmai Rassoul), nine presidential candidates are now left to contest the April election.

In the run up to the election, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) has granted candidates a two-month campaigning window, with key candidates taking to the road and travelling to both local and far-flung constituencies – often in the face of death threats – to garner support. Since February, Afghanistan has witnessed sizeable political rallies, robust advertisement campaigns and televised presidential debates. However, less campaign activity has been recorded in the higher-risk provinces of Nuristan, Kunar, Helmand and Zabul where security is thin – a factor that could translate into significantly lower levels of voter turnout.

In the eventuality that any single candidate fails to secure over 50 per cent of the total electoral vote, the two top vote securers will bid for a runoff in a second round in early summer. Provincial council elections will follow shortly thereafter.

The Candidates 

Afghanistan’s political landscape is structurally divided along fault lines that have spurred the rise of coalition politics; to mitigate these divisions, all nine candidates are riding on multi-ethnic three-person tickets to maximize their appeal to diverse vote banks. Eleven presidential candidates – notably no women – registered their nomination papers in October 2013 to contest the April 2014 election. Nine candidates are now left vying for the country’s highest political office, and can broadly be divided into two groups – former warlords (who enjoy greater political agency and district reach) and technocrats (more moderate in outlook, and driven by greater impetus to address corruption and reform power politics). This dynamic essentially means that candidates such as Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul will be heavily dependent on allegiances with local power brokers in order to make significant provincial inroads.

Early opinion polls show opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani holding a double-digit lead over their rivals. The March alliance between Zalmai Rassoul and Qayuum Karzai – a possible case of political expediency – is likely to offset this balance in the race for the Presidency. The last-minute withdrawal of General Wardak will also have the likely affect of consolidating, rather than splitting, a capricious Pushtun vote bank.

The four widely-considered front-runners are:

Abdullah Abdullah

Abdullah Abdullah, 53, is the leader of the Opposition and chairman of the ‘Coalition for Hope and Change’. Born in Kabul and a doctor by degree, Abdullah is viewed by many as the political heir to Ahmad Shah Masoud given his broad-based Tajik and non-Pushtun appeal. He served as Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister from 2001 to 2005 after returning from exile. In 2009 he ran against incumbent President Hamid Karzai, managing to obtain 30 per cent of the electoral vote. However, citing allegations of fraud and non-transparency, he withdrew his name from the runoff. Abdullah has campaigned vociferously to curtail corruption and profiteering. He has traditionally adopted a hard-line approach against the Afghan Taliban, questioning the Karzai government’s intentions and efforts to initiate dialogue. A staunch nationalist leader, Abdullah has also been fiercely critical of Pakistan, advocating the need for Kabul to take a tougher approach with Islamabad. Abdullah’s own diplomatic credentials have earned him respect and support from the US, Britain, Iran and India – a factor that could broaden his international appeal, particularly in Western capitals, should he emerge victorious in the election. The recent death of Afghan Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim on March 9 – another Tajik powerhouse – may help rally the Tajik ethnic group around Abdullah in the April election. His greatest challenge, however, will be winning the Pushtun ethnic vote bank; his choice of running mates in Mohammad Khan (a Pushtun) and Mohammed Mohaqeq (a Hazara and former warlord) have been calibrated to appeal to both ethnic denominations.

Zalmai Rassoul

Zalmai Rassoul, 70, was Afghanistan’s national security advisor and foreign minister until 2013. In addition to his close association with the Palace, Rassoul was also part of a significant number of President Karzai’s foreign tours. His chances have been bolstered after Qayuum Karzai withdrew his candidature in favour of Rassoul on March 7. While President Karzai has declared himself to be neutral, analysts believe that Rassoul is the Palace’s choice for successor, and may be President Karzai’s vehicle for a passive future role in the country’s administration. Campaigning on the buzzwords of moderation and rebuilding, the Rassoul-Karzai alliance is likely to be a formidable force vying for the Pushtun vote bank. Rassoul is notably supported by Hezb-e-Islami and Paktia governor Juma Khan Hamdard. On the subject of the Afghan Taliban, Rassoul has been an advocate of continued engagement and negotiation with the Taliban, and has described internal security as a prerequisite for development and economic prosperity. On the foreign policy front, Rassoul has also called for strengthening Afghanistan’s ties with Pakistan. Rassoul’s pick in Ahmad Zia Massoud (a Tajik) and Habiba Sarabi (a woman and former governor of Hazara-majority Bamiyan province) is expected to help him with women and first-time voters in urban centers.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, 64, is a political scientist and former finance minister presently serving as the chancellor of Kabul University. An ethnic Pushtun from the influential Ahmadzai tribe, Ghani was included in Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2010. Ghani contested the 2009 election, finishing fourth in the race. He has also served as the head of the high-profile Transitional Coordination Committee (TCC) that oversees the security transition from NATO to Afghan forces – a distinction likely to resonate with voters concerned with security and the drawdown of international forces from the country. He is also known for his anti-Pakistan rhetoric, having frequently criticized alleged Pakistani interference in the country’s activities. Ghani is currently advocating administrative reform, service delivery and wider regional cooperation. His choice of vice presidential candidate in former archenemy and Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum is ostensibly an attempt to appeal to the Uzbeks, who constitute 9 per cent of Afghanistan’s population.

Abdul Rasul Sayyaf                

Ustad Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, 64, is a former leader of the Mujahedeen and powerful warlord who fought vigorously against the Soviet forces, and is considered to be a strong contender. In 2003, Sayyaf was elected as one of 502 representatives to Kabul’s constitutional Loya Jirga. As a parliamentarian, he was known for his deep sympathies with jailed mujahedeen, often lobbying for their political amnesty. Controversially, Sayyaf was a mentor of Khaled Sheikh Mohamed – one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks. Now a sworn enemy of the Taliban, Sayyaf appreciates the need for US assistance in combating the Taliban beyond 2014. By sharing his ticket with Ismail Khan (a Tajik) and Abdul Wahhab Irfan (an Uzbek) Sayyaf has positioned himself as a moderate rather than a hardline ethno-nationalist.

Violence & the Afghan Taliban

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Escalating violence in the run up to Saturday rocks Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar, threatens to hold Afghanistan’s fledgling democratic project hostage. Daily suicide bombs and guerilla attacks are a grim reminder for many of the former Taliban regime’s brutality and its continued militant presence in the country’s polity.

Ahead of what is arguably Afghanistan’s most important election to date, security is tight in Kabul. According to Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry, 408 polling centers across the country have been dubbed high-risk. While civilian casualties have declined in recent years, the targeting of government officials and employees has risen sharply since 2013, according to a recent United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report. The frequency of monthly attacks in Kabul alone is currently the highest it has been in the past six years.

On March 20, Afghan New Year celebrations were interrupted when four gunmen forcibly entered Kabul’s luxury Serena Hotel complex, located less than a mile away from the Afghan Presidency. In the ensuing crossfire, nine people including four foreigners were killed. Then on March 25 – ten days before Election Day – Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen stormed an election commission office. Four days later, gunmen mounted yet another attack on the election commission building.

Given the Karzai government’s failure to reach a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, as well as the latter’s denouncement of the election as a Western charade, the legitimacy, credibility and inclusiveness of the April poll is likely to be contested well into the summer. While street support for the Taliban has reduced significantly since 2001, fear and intimidation will affect how residents vote in areas marked by lawlessness and insecurity.

Despite its electoral boycott, the Afghan Taliban form a crucial part of the security mosaic that will underwrite Afghanistan’s stability through and beyond 2014. The failure thus far to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table despite repeated entreaties by the United States, the EU, and President Karzai’s own backchannel diplomats is a symptom of the difficulties surrounding a negotiated political settlement. Former Taliban aide Agha Jan Mohtasim, known to be running a separate track in Dubai, is handicapped sans the muscle of Mullah Omar’s official sanction. The functionality of other such initiatives between voluntary Taliban factions and the Afghan government will be similarly limited. The release of a string of prisoner detainees by President Karzai in early 2014 as a peace offering has also failed to appease and bring insurgent elements into the fold.

Since the start of the campaign process, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan has reported a string of murders and assassination attempts in its incidents of election-related violence, raising immediate questions about the levels of domestic security and the ability of the nascent ANSF to ensure a peaceful election. A major challenge for election organizers will be to address insecurity and staff inadequacies, as well as extending the process to areas outside Kabul and penetrating individual fiefdoms and village-states.

Compared to the conservative south and east of the country, western Afghanistan enjoys higher levels of education, and voter turnout (particularly among women) is expected to be higher here. A fundamental difference between the 2009 and 2014 election, however, is that the former was conducted in the robust presence of international security forces working in tandem with the ANSF to provide cover and protection to approximately 5,000 centers across Afghanistan. Now with the strength of international forces vastly reduced, providing security cover to over 6,800 polling stations will be a heavy lift for the country’s embryonic security apparatus.

Voters & Issues 

At the forefront of the issues likely to decide the outcome of the 2014 Afghan elections is security, followed closely by economy. Three decades of war and insurgency have left the country ravaged and economically battered: 36 per cent of Afghans still live below the poverty line, while an estimated 70 per cent of Afghans have been categorized as food insecure. Tax revenue is negligible, and investment is at an all time low.

There are two important shifts that have taken place since Afghanistan’s last election. The first is the increase in the sheer number of veteran candidates with political experience, translating into greater options for the average voter. The second is the noticeable tilt away from individual-based politics to issue-based politics, with Afghan voters increasingly studying manifestoes and promises for reform, rather than voting based on candidates’ personal appeal. Service-delivery, education, health, infrastructure and development are, now more than ever, pressing concerns for those casting their votes in April.

If there is one thing that enfranchised Afghans agree on, it is the desire for a unified, economically viable Afghanistan. The new president will be tasked with the daunting challenge of ending corruption and instituting good governance: in 2012 Afghanistan was ranked 174 in 176 on Transparency International’s Corruption Index. The Karzai administration has also been criticized for rampant corruption, particularly in its disbursement of incoming foreign aid. President Karzai’s successor will also be expected to take action on Afghanistan’s record-high opium production, with a total of 154,000 hectares under poppy cultivation according to 2012 estimates.

Beyond the ambit of issue-based politics, social desirability may also affect voting behavior. Afghan leadership has traditionally been drawn from the dominant Pushtun ethnic group that constitutes 42 per cent of the population. Amongst the slate of registered candidates, Abdullah Abdullah is the only contender with Tajik ancestry; the other eight contenders are all Pushtun. The dominance of powerful Pushtun tribes in the country’s rugged southern belt including Kandahar could also mean that a presidential victory for Abdullah Abdullah might be contested in these districts.

The ethnic makeup of Afghanistan could also transform minority groups into swing voters in April. The Hazaras in particular are a growing socio-economic force in the country and the country’s third-largest ethnic faction, having made business and financial gains in the wake of the US invasion. This has translated into campaign strategy as well: four of the six leading candidates have reached out to include Hazara running mates in their bid to broaden their appeal to what has emerged as a sizable voter block.

Demographics, however, may not matter as much as they did in Pakistan’s elections, with analysts suggesting that the intergenerational factor and youth mandate will have a limited impact in the upcoming poll. The average 18 year old in 2014 would have been five years old in 2001 – arguably too young to have understood or felt the full impact of 9/11. It is expected that it will take another one – or even two – election cycles before Afghanistan’s youth is sufficiently engaged in the country’s democratic processes to determine outcomes.

Another observation is that no arrangements have been made for Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran to cast their vote in the presidential polls. Pakistan is home to an estimated 1.7 million Afghan refugees (including Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras) settled in different parts of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Another 1 million or more undocumented refugees are also believed to be residing in the country – 85 per cent of whom are Pushtun. Another estimated 0.9 million Afghans (mostly Tajik and Hazaras) have also sought refuge in Iran.

Afghan Women4324680171_97a68aeaa8_o

The anxiety surrounding the status of women in the Afghan endgame is not unwarranted. A return to civil war conditions or even a partial resurgence of the Taliban-style regime of the 1990s could result in a swift reversal of the fragile gains made in education, human rights and access to justice since 2001. Civil society lobbyists and rights groups are campaigning hard to ensure that any political reconciliation with the Taliban includes safeguards and internationally-brokered guarantees for the rights of women. These human rights concerns are also shared by vociferous voices in Pakistan’s civil society as well, where issues of women’s rights are under threat from the twin specter of extremist conservatism and reverberating regional influence in the country’s Pushtun frontier.

Currently 3 million (only 40 per cent of all school-age girls) Afghan girls are enrolled in schools across the country. More recently, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that crimes against women rose by 24 per cent in 2013; again, this does not account for the huge number of unreported violations taking place on a daily basis. And it was only in February that President Karzai backed away from a proposed law that would have silenced victims of domestic violence, forced marriage and child abuse – an indicator that opponents of women’s rights legislation continue to occupy public and political space in Afghanistan

The only woman running on a political ticket in April is Habiba Sarabi. At 57, the former governor of Bamiyan is now allied with Zalmai Rassoul and vying to become Afghanistan’s first female vice president. Her inclusion is likely to pull women to polling stations on Election Day, and will also strengthen the appeal of the Rassoul-Qayuum alliance.

Proofing the Process

Next month’s election is riding high on the hopes and aspirations of a transparent and credible electoral process, but is simultaneously fraught with fears of fraud and electoral rigging. The poll in 2009 was marked by insecurity, low voter turnout and alleged voter fraud (prompting Abdullah Abdullah to withdraw his name from the runoff against the incumbent). Almost half of all votes cast from Kandahar alone were believed to have been falsified.

In comparison, active efforts – including 10,000 election observers – have been made to address such concerns in 2014. To ensure fairness, new legislation in 2013 capped campaign spending for presidential candidates at $200,000; however the ability to monitor and control the spending cap is questionable given the health of the country’s fiscal and banking institutions. The July 2013 adoption of the Electoral Structure Law on structure and responsibility also saw, for the first time, the appointment of the Independent Election Commissioner (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commissioner (EEC) through a consultative process involving the legislature and judiciary as opposed to presidential appointment. Notably, the IEC claims to have instituted measures that include improved training for electoral officials to detect fraud, simpler ballots and more secure handling of voting material. Simpler ballots are crucial for an electorate with low – 28 per cent – literacy rates. Voters’ thumbs will also be marked with two kinds of ink to prevent repeat voting. The IEC also conducted a vigorous nationwide campaign through the summer and fall of 2013 to specifically target women and new voters and draw them into the electoral net.

The EEC, meanwhile, has been tasked with assisting in complaint evaluation and investigation management. The neutrality and independence of both bodies during the election will be a test for the country’s fledgling democratic institutions, as will be efforts to curtail ballot stuffing and intimidation by local and elected officials.

The IEC has announced that arrangements have thus far been made for 95 per cent of voting centers (6,431) to be fully functional and operating on voting day. The Afghan civil society – particularly in the country’s urban centers – has actively sought to run awareness campaigns and public demonstrations to ensure voter turnout; a dismal 30-35 per cent of registered Afghans ended up voting in 2009. The US embassy in Kabul has also commissioned three opinion polls in the lead-up to Afghanistan’s election. The hope is that the polling data will help inform voters and candidates and reduce the potential for election fraud.

The largely agrarian nature of the Afghan economy is a factor that may affect voter turnout on Saturday, since rural farmers are likely to be occupied with the springtime harvest. April elections also mean that most of the logistical preparations in the run up to polling day would have had to be undertaken during the winter season, when access to remote northern parts of the country was difficult. The numbers that make it to polling stations in the northern and mountainous districts could thus potentially swing the vote.

Ultimately, the sustainability of political and democratic reform in Afghanistan will come under keen scrutiny in the aftermath of the election. In particular, attention is likely to focus on the new Kabul government and its ability to demonstrate leadership and capacity to prevent any kind of rollback during the next five years. It is in this context that domestic realities outside Kabul are likely to test liberal peace building narratives of top-down democracy and reform. In the near future, a similar international and local challenge may well be the inevitability of having to accept segments of the Afghan Taliban as legitimate stakeholders in the country’s fragmented polity, as inconvenient a truth as that may be.

Looking Ahead 

5022691111_7a27e5588d_oDuring times of peace, conducting nationwide elections is a complex mega project; in times of conflict the difficulties are exponentially pronounced. While analysts agree that a smooth and relatively peaceful April election in Afghanistan could well mark a maturation of the democratic cycle for 31 million Afghans, this seems increasingly unlikely with violence escalating prior to Saturday’s poll. Though the voting-in of a new government will likely signal the coming-of-age of the Afghan voter – a vital precursor for governance and societal reform – it will probably not result in the immediate demise of the Afghan militant, who will continue to posit a serious challenge for the democratic enterprise.

Yet, by and large, 2014 remains a year of unchartered waters for a country that is, for the first time, changing its leadership through the ballot box. For Pakistan in particular, the urgency of peace in Afghanistan has rarely been this acute. Now in its eleventh hour, a resolution to the endgame across the border is an indispensable prerequisite to ensuring internal stability across large tracts of Pakistan’s FATA region and elsewhere. Burdened by the continued exodus of Afghan refugees – a number expected to swell to 5 million if the BSA remains unsigned – capacity and service delivery in Pakistan’s own urban and peri-urban centers will be tested well into 2015.  The ability of the new Afghan government to consolidate control over eastern and southern parts of its country will also colour the shape and nature of the militant threat emanating from the volatile borderland targeting Pakistani cities. Waves of continued, unmitigated insurgency in Afghanistan could also force Kabul to take a tougher bilateral posture with Pakistan, and send relations into an undesirable tailspin.

It is in this light that a relatively undisputed transfer of civilian power in Afghanistan will continue to dominate domestic and regional discourse through the summer. Pertinently, the political status of the Afghan Taliban is likely to cast a long shadow beyond this Saturday, and will be just one of the many challenges that the new administration will have to address in its first 100 days. Violence in the run up to April 5 and thereafter will thus be a critical determinant of electoral and government-formation outcomes. Even after the posters and billboards in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat are taken down, Afghanistan’s metropolises and countryside towns will continue to remain on high-alert. The only certainty is that stable regional futures will hinge on unfolding events in Afghanistan, as a war-ravaged nation looks to recover from decades of bruising conflict.

The writer is a project manager for Jinnah Institute’s Strategic Security Initiative. Twitter: @fahdhumayun.

Please note that the views in this publication do not reflect those of the Jinnah Institute, its Board of Directors, Board of Advisors or management. Unless noted otherwise, all material is property of the Institute. Copyright © Jinnah Institute 2014)