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Why are Afghan candidates wooing the Hazara vote?

Wakil Kohsar/AFP

A familiar narrative doing the rounds in Afghanistan over the past few years is that an ethnic Hazara will dominate “Afghan Star,” the country’s widely popular version of “American Idol”.


Afghan Star” winners, like their US counterparts, are chosen by viewers via phone calls and SMS texts. That’s when, the popular wisdom goes, the Hazara penchant for uniting, organising and voting rises to the fore.

Come election time and these qualities combine to make the Hazaras, a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan, a very desirable vote block for candidates in a country where the political chessboard is still largely drawn along ethnic lines.

Most of the leading presidential candidates in the historic April 5 election have selected a Hazara running mate on their three-person tickets in a sign of the socio-political gains this historically oppressed ethnic group has made over the past decade.

The only woman on a heavyweight ticket this year is a Hazara. Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan’s first female provincial governor, is standing as second vice president for Zalmay Rassoul, a former foreign minister who is outgoing President Hamid Karzai’s favoured candidate.

Karzai’s arch rival in the 2009 race, Abdullah Abdullah, also has a Hazara running mate this year. Mohammed Mohaqiq, Abdullah’s second vice president, is a veteran politician whose past posts include warlord in the Taliban era and planning minister in Karzai’s 2002 transitional government.

This year’s presidential poll marks the first time Karzai will not feature on the ballot since the 2001 fall of the Taliban as the Afghan president is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term.

Karzai himself has a Hazara vice president and the trend is likely to continue – a stunning reversal for a community that has clawed its way from Afghanistan’s despised underclass to political kingmakers.

Comprising around 9% of the population, according to CIA figures, the Hazaras nevertheless have a disproportionate weight in Afghan politics today.

“The Hazaras are most invested in the democratic process,” said Melissa Kerr Chiovenda, an anthropologist and Hazara expert at the University of Connecticut. “What you see on ‘Afghan Star’ is a reflection of this. They understand the importance of voting. It’s a way for them to advance themselves and to try to improve their position – whether politically or culturally.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter if it’s “Afghan Star” or a presidential poll, the Hazaras will vote. The politicians know this – and would like to capitalize on it.

“They are the group with the greatest mobilizing power,” said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. “You'll see on Election Day, polling stations in Hazara-dominated areas overflowing. They have a sense, in general, that this is their chance in history.”

A narrative of persecution and past atrocities

It wasn’t always this good for the Hazaras. With their easily identifiable Mongol features, the predominantly Shiite community has been historically denigrated as “qalfak chapat” (flat noses) and “Hazara-e-mushkhur” (mice-eating Hazaras).

Situated in the remote, impoverished central Afghan highlands, the Hazara heartland was historically known as the Hazarajat and remained isolated for centuries.

That was until the 19th century, when Abdur Rehman – also known as “the Iron Emir” – succeeded in capturing the Hazarajat and establishing a unified Afghan state. It was the start of a long period of persecution by the country’s Pashtun rulers – exacerbated during periods of Sunni hardline rule.

During the 1990s mujahideen wars, hundreds of Hazaras were killed in the western Kabul neighborhood of Afshar in a massacre that is etched on the community’s collective consciousness. In the mid-90s, a desperate Hazara attempt to establish relations with a new Pashtun force rising from the southern city of Kandahar ended grotesquely when the Taliban tortured then Hazara leader Abdul Mazari and threw his mutilated body from a helicopter.

The oppression of the past has fostered what the Afghans call “oqda” – or bitterness over atrocities during conflicts – that has served to unite the Hazaras in a shared sense of grievance.

Some scholars, such as Chiovenda, believe the Hazara’s “oqda” is shaped by the larger Shiite discourse of persecution by their Sunni oppressors.

“I do think the Shiite narrative of suffering is influencing how the Hazaras talk about their history. For instance, the Afshar massacre is referred to as ‘our Karbala’,” explained Chiovenda, referring to the 7th century killing of Imam Hussein in the Battle of Karbala, which caused the bitter Sunni-Shiite split in Islam. “Mazari’s death is seen as a parallel to Imam Hussein’s death – he was lured by a corrupt enemy and killed. There is a strong sense among the Hazaras that their history has been stolen by the Pashtun elites.”

Finally, a period of progress and social advancement

That narrative changed dramatically after the fall of the Taliban. In many ways, the Karzai era has been kind on the Hazaras. When he came to power, Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, “proved to be more interested in co-opting the country’s various ethnic constituencies than bludgeoning them into submission,” writes Brian Glyn Williams, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, in the anthology, “Militancy and Political Violence in Shiism”.

Afghan presidential election 2014 - the big issues

It was Karzai who initiated a policy of ethnic appeasement, appointing prominent Hazara leader Karim Khalili as his vice president and Sarabi as Afghanistan’s first (and so far only) female provincial governor.

In stark contrast to the deadly persecution the community faces in neighbouring Pakistan, where Sunni extremist groups – supported by the Pakistani military-intelligence complex – have repeatedly attacked the community, the Hazaras in Afghanistan have been thriving.

Hazara education levels are higher than those of other ethnic groups, especially the majority Pashtuns, as a new generation has seized on education to try to remake their circumstances.

The community’s relatively moderate interpretation of Islam has seen female literacy rates soar, and come election time, female voting rates are much higher than in the more conservative Pashtun community.

The Hazaras have also been one of the biggest supporters of the US presence in Afghanistan. Community elders have called on Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would enable some US troops to stay in Afghanistan following the combat troop-pullout by the end of the year. In November, they went a step further and called for a US base in their heartland Bamiyan province.

Splitting the Hazara vote

The year 2014 is a critical one for Afghanistan, with the upcoming transfer of political power and the international troop withdrawal. The Hazaras are keenly aware that a resurgence of the Taliban could see a reversal of their historic gains over the past decade.

With virtually every major presidential candidate in the April 5 poll featuring a Hazara running mate, some members of the community fear that the Hazara vote will be split this year.

“I'm not happy with the fact that Hazara leaders are going to different candidates,'' Rahmat Ula Karimi, a Kabul resident, told the Associated Press. “Hazaras should be one voice to protect their rights. All the Hazaras should back one leader so they can have a unified voice.''

But some experts warn against focusing exclusively on ethnicity. “People don’t only vote along ethnic lines,” said van Bijlert. “It’s very much a collective consideration, but with groups at all levels trying to decide which candidate can get them the best deal."

What’s more, a split in the Hazara vote does not necessarily mean the community’s political and socio-economic interests will be at stake. “They are not going in a bloc to challenge other ethnic communities," Elham Gharji, a Hazara university instructor and political science researcher, told the Wall Street Journal. "Their electoral behavior is aimed at preserving the opportunities that they have been enjoying over the past 12 years."



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