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For Now, it is Ballot over Bullet in Afghanistan

Vishal Chandra is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 18, 2014

    I want my vote to be valid and safe; meaning no one should be given a chance to commit wrong. Whoever wins, I will accept it. It doesn't matter if it's Abdullah, Zalmai or Ghani.
    - An Afghan farmer, Kabul, Tolo News

    On April 5, 2014, the Afghan nation voted to elect what is supposed to be the country’s first post-ISAF and post-Karzai government. This was the third time that presidential and provincial council elections were held in the country since the overthrow of the Taliban regime over a decade ago. The entire election process, however, is supposed to conclude with the third round of parliamentary elections which should be due sometime next year. This basically means that the April elections mark the beginning of a long-drawn complex process extending over a year. The whole exercise in due course will test the strength and credibility of the Afghan institutions and the resolve of the Afghan people to take the political process to its logical conclusion.

    Fragile Hope

    It is not merely about change in leadership; it is about ushering the country into a ‘decade of transformation’ (2015-24) by further institutionalising a relatively inclusive political culture which could cater to the rising scepticism as well as aspirations among the Afghan people. It is about building a political order which is in tune with the changing socio-political realities, mindful of the several challenges ahead, the most important being, how to keep the international community engaged. Like the incumbent president, the next leadership in Kabul too will have to confront similar challenges: managing divergent perceptions and factional interests, competing patronage networks and parallel power structures at the sub-national level, seemingly irreconcilable ideological positions of the Pakistan-sponsored Haqqani-Taliban network and, most critically, sustaining the current constitutional framework to the extent possible.

    The most immediate challenge before the incumbent government and the relevant election and security institutions is to sustain and strengthen the people’s engagement in the process. It is about institutionalising the trust and confidence that the Afghan people have shown in the democratic exercise, which now depends on the integrity and strength of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the ability of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) to address violations of various kinds and at every level of the process in a timely and convincing manner. The success of April 2014 elections could soon turn into fatal despair if both Afghans and the international community fail to take advantage of the political momentum generated by the election process to further build on the achievements of the past decade.

    Compared to the previous two presidential elections held in 2004 and 2009, the April 2014 elections are largely seen as elections with a difference, especially in terms of its timing, background profile of presidential candidates, increased popular participation and a surprisingly low level of violence on the polling day. Though it is still too early to fully assess its overall impact in terms of giving a new direction to the Afghan polity, nevertheless, the election process witnessed unprecedented surge in voter registration and voter turnout, increased women’s participation, wider media coverage including televised presidential debates, youth and civil society activism, support from various local religious heads and, most importantly, the process hardly saw any direct political interference from outside. The preparation for elections was entirely managed by institutions manned and led by Afghans. The Afghan security institutions too, particularly the national army, police and the intelligence, made all out efforts to create conducive security environment across the country for the electorates to exercise their right. As per the preliminary estimates, about seven million of the 12 million or nearly 58 per cent of the eligible voters participated in the polling process, which is said to be the highest since the first presidential election held in October 2004. However, these figures are provisional and could be revised as more information trickle in. The preliminary results are expected to be announced by the IEC on April 24, followed by final results by May 14.

    The cross-ethnic/factional alliances that most of the presidential candidates have attempted by nominating vice-presidential nominees from diverse socio-political backgrounds, could be interpreted in three ways: firstly, the idea is to overcome various political limitations and electoral vulnerabilities due to the polarised nature of the Afghan polity; secondly, the inevitability of networking with dominant sub national power structures to extend government’s influence to the provinces as well as to keep the potential opposition under check; and thirdly, the need to strengthen one’s legitimacy and credibility as a political actor both at the domestic and external level by widening the support base.

    Interestingly, all eight presidential candidates in the fray are Pashtuns including Dr Abdullah who is part Pashtun and part Tajik. The Pahstun tribal dynamics in the south could play a relatively strong role compared to previous elections, though old commanders and leaders particularly from the minority ethnic groups in central and northern Afghanistan would continue to have a significant role at a more operational level. It was too obvious that almost all the candidates formed coalitions keeping an eye on diverse ethnic interests, and regional and local power dynamics. For instance, Dr Abdullah, former foreign minister and earlier a close aide of former Jamiat commander Ahmed Shah Masoud, has Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun and a member of the political wing of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, a veteran Hazara leader from Hezb-e Wahdat, as his vice presidential compatriots. Similarly, Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai, formerly World Bank executive and later finance minister and chairman of the Transition Commission of Afghanistan, who along with Abdullah is considered to be among top contenders, has influential Uzbek commander from Jowzjan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Sarwar Danish, a Hazara and former justice minister, as his vice presidential candidates. A glance through the profiles of vice presidential nominees of leading candidates suggest that they could be potential power brokers as efforts to either avoid possible runoff as part of a deal between the top two contenders or to negotiate post-poll alliances gather momentum. In fact, presidential candidatures often are a kind of mini-coalition when seen together with the politically influential background of the vice-presidential co-nominees.

    Continuing Challenges

    The unexpectedly low level of violence across the country, though encouraging, says more than what is being generally understood. The string of high profile and well-coordinated attacks, including those within the Kabul city, carried out by the Afghan Taliban and their allies in the run up to the April election, suggests that the huge presence of Afghan army and police could not have alone deterred the Taliban from disrupting the process. For the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban leadership and the Haqqani network, it is a continuing struggle against a West-sponsored political process which simply does not fit into their ideological or socio-political narrative. There is a huge psychological side to the ongoing war where favourable public perception and ground support is considered critical for success by all sides. The Haqqani-Taliban leadership are apparently gauging the mood of the nation by closely observing people’s response to the election process. Causing massive casualties among the masses on the polling day would have only worked against the Taliban in view of the enthusiastic response of the people in general and the tremendous faith voters displayed in the national security forces, which have so far shown resilience despite the looming uncertainty and several logistical deficiencies.

    President Karzai’s ambivalence over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US might have inadvertently helped in turning the nation’s attention to the significance of the April elections as the last available option to prevent the country from sliding into a civil war. Karzai’s aggressive posturing on BSA could not have been merely on account of his personal anger at the West. Certain tactical political considerations may have dictated his approach on the issue as he tried to develop a more independent foreign policy and also renewed his efforts for reconciliation with the Taliban. However, when one looks at the wider picture, particularly the trans-border nature of the armed opposition in Afghanistan and developments within Pakistan especially regarding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ongoing reconciliation initiative towards Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, there is no credible reason to believe that there will be any let up in violent attacks by the Haqqani-Taliban network inside Afghanistan. In fact, Taliban are most likely to rather intensify their strategy of carrying out high profile attacks against government structures across the country, irrespective of the outcomes of the April elections.

    As the possibility of a run off between two top presidential contenders remain high, and more and more complaints of electoral fraud starts coming in, the Afghan Taliban and their backers within the Pakistani military establishment would be keen to exploit political dissatisfaction that might subsequently set in. Notably, none of the ‘former’ Taliban, particularly those who are based and relatively active inside Afghanistan, joined the presidential fray. The position and perception of the dominant hardcore segment within the Taliban is most unlikely to change, a clear indicator of the looming threat to the next government in Kabul from across the Durand Line. Political stability and sustainable economic growth will thus continue to elude Afghanistan unless the political transition is perceived as legitimate by the people and a functional balance of power emerges within the country with the formation of the next government.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.