Is Afghanistan Set to Elect a Truly National President?

Afghanistan is getting ready to go to a second round of polls on June 14. The fairly peaceful first round (despite some irregularities and scattered violence in the outlying provinces) symbolized Afghans’ interest in supporting a democratic process to elect a leader for security building, peace and development.

While 60% of Afghans cast their votes for the presidential candidate of their choice, a second expensive election round must be held according to the national Constitution because no candidate won more than 50% of the votes. Currently the country is in a precarious situation, with virtually no legitimate President or government in place (since President Karzai’s term legally ended on May 23).

Based on my own knowledge of and acquaintance with both Ghani and Abdullah, I believe that each one, if elected, would make a priority of suppressing ethnic politics and violence in the interest of national unity.

Given the time that has passed since campaigning first started—and especially now without a legitimate government in place—life and work in Afghanistan are not in a normal state. Government programs, parliamentary affairs, trade and commerce, donor activities, development projects and the work of the international community are reportedly moving at snail’s pace, if at all. This is taking a toll on an already very weak economy and governance.

The timing of the second round has put the election right into the hands of the Taliban, which is continuing its spring and summer offensive with a vengeance. Having learned how the Afghan security forces had secured the capital cities of the provinces against its disruptive actions in the first round, the Taliban leadership probably has planned to disrupt the second round.

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The spirit, hopes and aspirations that filled the air before the first round of elections is now absent. The turnout is feared to be lower this time. Polls identify skepticism among citizens who voted in face of all threats on April 5 and now must start the process all over again with no government in sight for months.

There are also fears that second-round votes will be split along ethnic lines, damaging prospects for national unity. However, these fears might prove to be baseless. Youth and women (whose votes together form a substantial percentage of total votes) are unlikely to vote along ethnic lines but rather according to candidates’ platforms. Candidates’ alliances with Islamist parties that demand rule by Sharia law are unpalatable for women; and one of the most influential female leaders, Fauzia Kufi, recently endorsed Abdullah Abdullah.

It is true that first-round voting patterns for the two front runners, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, clearly reflected a trend of vote-splitting along ethnic lines.  Although these candidates have been playing down ethnic politics in both election rounds, the first round results clearly showed an ethnic division. Ghani’s Pashtun origin attracted mainly Pashtun voters (although the Uzbek origin of his running mate Abdul Rashid Dostum also gathered Uzbek support). Though Abdullah’s ethnicity is mixed Pashtun and Tajik, his close association with the Northern Alliance’s Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, casts his public image as Tajik. Accordingly, he attracted more Tajik votes and also Hazara votes from the West.


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Presidential candidates are continuing efforts to reduce the ethnic undertone in the second round.  The possibility of this election round fracturing along ethnic lines is lessened because of the fact that candidates have built strategic alliances beyond their own communities. Politics in Afghanistan demands dealing with various political elites, tribal and ethnic factions and religious groups. Some of these alliances have to be made with unsavory characters, with a determination that alliances will be managed in such a way that national interests are not compromised.

The running mates of both the presidential candidates have deplorable records of human rights violations and brutal violence. Some high-profile supporters of both candidates allegedly have a record of corruption as well. However, both presidential candidates are considered capable of controlling violence, human rights abuses and corruption under their administration.

Based on my own knowledge of and acquaintance with both Ghani and Abdullah, I believe that each one, if elected, would make a priority of suppressing ethnic politics and violence in the interest of national unity. Ghani has repeatedly said that ethnic politics has no place in a democracy. As for Abdullah, at a conference several years ago in London I heard him say, in response to being introduced as “Dr. Abdullah, the Tajik Foreign Minister of Afghanistan” that “I am not Tajik, I am Afghan”.

It is to be hoped that a truly Afghan national president will emerge out of this election.

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