An Insight into the Afghan elections

08 Jul 2014
08 July 2014

On June 14th, Afghans went to the polls for the second time in as many months to choose a successor to Hamid Karzai – the only leader the war-torn country has known since the US-led invasion in 2001. The two candidates – Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai – each failed to secure an outright majority in the April 5th vote. Less than a week has passed since the second round of voting, and already cries of foul play and fraud have dominated discourse.

On the 19th June, Abdullah called on vote-counting to be stopped because of widespread claims of fraud. His camp has also reportedly suspended relations with the country’s Independent Election Commission – the people tasked with ensuring fairness. The results have not yet come in but already, their legitimacy is being questioned.

Abdullah’s popularity is based on his relationship as a close aide to the anti-Taliban warlord and subsequent “national hero” Ahmad Shah Masood. Masood was assassinated a few days before the September 11th attacks in New York, and his Northern Alliance guerrilla group provided support to the international forces in their overthrow of the Taliban. Following the invasion, Abdullah had a four year stint as Foreign Minister and has been in the public eye since.

His counterpart Ahmadzai’s history is wholly different. A US based technocrat for most of the last 30 years, he worked for the World Bank and as a professor at Johns Hopkins University. His return to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban saw him take up the post of Finance Minister until 2004. In recent years, he oversaw the transition of security responsibilities from international forces to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. This cross country exposure enabled him a more high-profile persona in the eyes of Afghans and somewhat improved his legitimacy as a possible Afghan leader, after more than 2 decades abroad.

The fact that over seven million Afghans braved Taliban threats to go out for a second time and vote on Saturday prove the democratic process is enjoying some degree of success in a country plagued by war since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Official reports suggested at least 46 people were killed in the violence, with a number of voters having their fingers cut off for choosing to take part – a stark reminder of the costs of self-determination in some places around the world. However, unofficial reports claim more than 150 were killed. Either way, the government deemed the process a success with the violence being of “little impact”. This is the reality of Afghanistan’s dire security situation – when almost 50 people being killed is deemed a success.

Indeed, security will almost certainly be the biggest problem facing the incoming President. But this is a country with grave problems. Afghanistan regularly ranks at the bottom of most indices of social development. Poverty and illiteracy are widespread and according to the World Bank, 1 in 10 children in Afghanistan will not live to see their 5th birthday. A great deal is resting on this election, and its results. Talking to many Afghans, you get a sense that everything is on hold, awaiting the decision that they hope will improve their lives.

Importantly, this will be the first democratic transition of power the country has ever experienced. This in itself is promising. Both candidates have also vowed to sign a landmark Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States – which will see nearly 10,000 American troops to remain in the country for two more years. Despite the country being insecure, the campaigning process has been relatively healthy and vibrant.

Other countries in Central Asia like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have largely ceremonial elections, where results are rubber stamped. Also, in Afghanistan, satire and freedom of speech is far greater than in other countries in the region. The government is regularly blasted and ridiculed on TV, Radio, and in the press. People are allowed to air their views with little risk of reprisals. This is something I have personally observed on many trips to the nation.

But you only need to take a look at the candidates’ running-mates to realise what Afghan politics is truly like. Abdullah’s includes Mohammed Khan – a senior figure of the main Islamist group in Afghanistan, the Hezb Islami – which gained prominence as a resistance group to the Soviet invasion. His other choice, Mohammed Muhaqiq is also a militia leader from the war against the Soviets – and an ethnic Hazara.

Ahmadzai on the other hand, has opted for Abdul Rashid Dostom, an ethnic Uzbek former warlord, who has repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses during the resistance against the Taliban from 1996-2001.

The choices of both candidates highlight three things, which are indicative of the task at hand for the winning candidate. Firstly, it shows the realities of governing in a country like Afghanistan. It is not implausible to suggest the choice of running mates was based on a realisation that governing in Afghanistan is about power-broking with those who truly hold sway in the country – rather than based on merit.

Afghanistan’s war legacy along with its tribal organisation of society means true power is still held by ethnic leaders, and former warlords. Governing without these people and their support is impossible. Hamid Karzai has had to garner their support to remain in office, and it is unlikely the new president will be any different.

Second, the background of each running mate also shows just how fragmented Afghanistan remains. The civil war that broke out in 1992, after the pullout by the Soviets, was largely predicated on ethnic grounds. Ahmadzai (believed to be a Pashtun) knows the importance of the Uzbek vote. Likewise, Abdullah, who’s half Tajik, knows he needs Pashtun support to garner legitimacy, as every previous leader in Afghanistan’s recent history has been Pashtun. The Hazara vote is another which is not unimportant – incumbent Hamid Karzai ensured a similar move in his first two terms in office. In a country where illiteracy is high, ethnicity remains one of the key forms of identity and central to the organisation of society. Again, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Background is essential to understanding Afghan politics because there has never been a non-Pashtun leader in Afghanistan’s history, and many feel the country isn’t ready to witness that just yet. Particularly when a key motivation for the Taliban is Pashtun nationalism.

Lastly, it shows Afghanistan’s recent history is likely to have a lasting impact, most likely for the next generation and certainly for the next government.

Importantly, a successful transition of power would be a promising sign for younger generations that democracy can work in Afghanistan, that power can be passed on, and that their votes do count for something. I genuinely feel there is a desire among Afghans to move forward in this direction, but the institutionalisation of over thirty years of war, means change will be slow and gradual, not immediate.

Before the Soviet invasion, Afghans enjoyed far greater freedoms and were far more modern than images that have come out of the country in the past three decades would have many believe. The unfortunate reality now is a country devastated by war, an impoverished population, a largely ineffective economy and a society where the threat of deadly attacks is unpredictable.

With Abdullah Abdullah questioning the legitimacy of the results before they are even announced, it could set the stage for a showdown that could threaten Afghanistan’s first peaceful transfer of authority. Unfortunately, it is unlikely the Independent Election Commission will qualm these sorts of worries. Given the widespread problems faced by Afghanistan, a contested result could risk jeopardising any small steps the nation is taking towards becoming a functioning state.

Institutions in Afghanistan continue to remain corrupt, hence why there is little faith in them, especially from the public. According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is the joint most corrupt country in the world. Much of the international community’s focus over the past 13 years has been on security institutions – and perhaps understandably so. Moreover, much of the government’s capabilities are centralised in and around the capital Kabul. The government’s power doesn’t reach all parts of the country, especially with regards to the delivery of services. So institutions in Afghanistan are limited.

In terms of human rights, I do believe both candidates will somewhat improve the situation, if security is guaranteed. That’s the most important consideration when talking about Afghanistan. It is impossible to imagine much progress without security. The government can’t reach large parts of the country at the moment, because they’re too insecure. Importantly, one of the shining lights if you will over the past 13 years has been a marked improvement in education, and particularly the education of girls. These sorts of changes are generational – and their results won’t be witnessed immediately. But given that around 65% of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 30, this election will be a milestone if they witness a successful transition of power.

Given Ashraf Ghani’s background as a technocrat with significant experience in the World Bank and a professor, I would think he would be best suited to improve the country and its economy. Moreover, with Abdullah Abdullah’s questionable legitimacy as an Afghan ruler (because he’s seen as Tajik), I wonder whether Ashraf Ghani may be the safer bet for now – and if you look at the way things are progressing, it seems likely he is going to win (Abdullah has pretty much rejected the results over the past few days).

But of course, as a journalist, I wouldn’t like to publicly take sides.