With no Karzai, Afghans vote in open race with high stakes
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Long before campaigning for the April 5 poll began, Afghan President Hamid Karzai promised he would not endorse any presidential candidate. He did not break his vow. But everybody knows who Karzai supports – it’s one of Kabul’s worst-kept secrets.
The 2014 election comes at a pivotal moment in Afghanistan’s history. If all goes well, this presidential poll will mark the first-ever democratic transfer of power in a country that has seen monarchy, communism, anarchy, theocracy and democracy in the past four decades.
The upcoming poll will also be the first time Karzai has not featured on the ballot paper since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, as the Afghan president is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term.
But many Afghans are skeptical about Karzai’s assertions that he plans to “move on” after a power handover.
In terms of sheer geography, Karzai will not be moving far once his successor is installed in the Arg, as the Afghan presidential palace is known.
His post-presidential home, a newly refurbished colonial-style bungalow, is reportedly located just outside the Arg, prompting some speculation in Kabul's chattering circles that Karzai plans to “do a Putin”.
If Karzai is indeed trying to emulate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2012 comeback, the plan would include installing a pliant successor to play the Dmitry Medvedev figure.
Enter Zalmay Rassoul, a former Afghan foreign minister and Karzai loyalist. Although the outgoing president has not officially endorsed Rassoul, the French-educated 71-year-old is routinely referred to as “Karzai’s favoured candidate” by the Afghan and international media.
The perception that Karzai is supporting his former foreign minister was strengthened in early March, when the outgoing president’s brother, Qayum Karzai, pulled out of the race in favor of Rassoul.
The Afghan president has openly admitted to preventing his brother from running. In an interview with the Washington Post last month, Karzai said he discouraged his sibling “for the larger, bigger interest of Afghanistan” – suggesting that another Karzai on the ballot would expose the entire electoral process to allegations of fraud and interference.
The ghosts of 2009
Karzai has every reason to be concerned. The last presidential election in 2009 was marred by widespread fraud and irregularities, with the incumbent only winning after his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from a runoff citing a lack of faith in the Karzai government’s ability to hold a fair election.
The 2009 poll has haunted the upcoming vote in a country where violence, remote terrain and infrastructural hurdles combine to make elections one of the most difficult and dangerous democratic exercises in the world.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the vote, and over the past few weeks they have succeeded in attacking the sort of targets that rattle the international community and generate alarming news headlines.
On March 20, an assault on Kabul’s luxury Serena Hotel killed nine people – including women and children. Days later, the Taliban infiltrated the compound of the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) headquarters in Kabul, sparking panicked headlines, but no civilian casualties. The only victims of the IEC attack were the five attackers. A subsequent assault on a Kabul guesthouse for foreigners led to the deaths of the five assailants and two Afghan bystanders.
The pre-poll violence has seen many international election monitors cease or severely restrict their missions in the 2014 elections. Their absence, or reduced presence, will not only affect the reach of monitors across Afghanistan; it will also deny Afghan electoral officials the expertise of experienced professionals, noted Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, in an interview with the New York Times.
Given the enormous challenges, no one expects the 2014 Afghan election to run with Swiss-like efficiency. “This election is being held under such difficult circumstances, it’s difficult to control what happens,” said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. “It’s going to be a very messy election, regardless of whether the Taliban step up the violence.”
The Afghan post-electoral process is a far cry from the instant online results, projections and tallies in Western democracies. Vote-counts from the country’s far-flung polling stations have to move to provincial offices before making their way to the national tallying center in Kabul. The final results are expected to take weeks – after a slow drip of partial result announcements.
Under Afghan law, if no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote, the election goes into a runoff, which in turn is likely to take months.
An open race with no incumbent
One of the more interesting features of this election is the absence of an incumbent or ruling party, which makes the 2014 poll an open race.
The intense pre-election focus on a likely Karzai candidate endorsement reflected concerns that the state machinery could be thrown behind a favored successor.
“It’s not so much that a Karzai endorsement has moral weight, it’s the implicit message that if you want the status quo to remain, here’s your candidate,” said van Bijlert. “People believe that a lot of the resources of the state will be used to support the candidate, even though the IECC (Independent Electoral Complaints Commission) has made several announcements saying government officials cannot openly support any candidate.”
With all the major campaign teams keeping a hawk’s eye on their rivals’ conduct, there has been a flurry of complaints filed with the IECC, the Afghan poll watchdog.
But so far, barring the odd accusations of government employees putting up posters of some candidates – which sparked a warning by the Independent Election Commission – there have not been widespread signs of systemic irregularities. In at least one case, a photograph doing the rounds in Afghan social media circles of a border police official allegedly distributing Rassoul flyers turned out to be a doctored version of a 2012 NATO publicity campaign.
Blurring ethnic lines on the political chessboard
There’s little doubt that Karzai, a Pashtun and member of the influential Popalzai tribe, commands a measure of Afghan respect – sometimes a grudging one – for his ability to accommodate and hold together a delicate coalition of ethnic powerbrokers with competing interests.
It’s not clear, however, if that respect will translate into Afghans actually casting their ballot for his favoured – but not officially endorsed – candidate of choice.
In the lead-up to the vote, opinion polls have indicated a three-horse race between Rassoul, Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister and World Bank official.
All three men are Pashtun – although Abdullah is half-Tajik, half-Pashtun and is often viewed as a Tajik.
They all have Hazara running mates – raising the possibility of a split in the highly mobilized and coveted Hazara vote. In effect, the 2014 polls could see the blurring of ethnic lines on the Afghan political chessboard or a new series of moves in the old ethnic game.
Opinion polls conducted by international polling units have consistently put Ghani and Abdullah in the lead with under 50% of the vote, raising the specter of a runoff between the two candidates. While Afghan opinion polls are difficult to conduct and predictions are hampered by the likelihood of electoral irregularities, they have, in the past, proved to offer a fairly accurate read of voting patterns.
But anything can happen in an Afghan election and all eyes this year will be on the post-electoral vote-counting, redress and adjudication process.
A Karzai endorsement may not necessarily mean a shoe-in for his preferred candidate, and that, by itself, makes for a very interesting election in a race with such high stakes.