Afghanistan hopes for smooth transition as election day approaches
KABUL // Changes of government are rarely straightforward in Afghanistan but the stakes in Saturday’s presidential election could not be higher.
The incumbent, Hamid Karzai, who has been in power since 2001, is barred by the constitution from standing again and his successor will take over as US and Nato troops are completing their withdrawal after 13 years of conflict.
A free and fair vote followed by a smooth transition of power will help temper concerns that a civil war lies around the corner. Anything else and the future stability of the entire region could be called into question.
Campaigning that began in early February ended on Thursday and posters of the candidates could still be seen throughout Kabul. Large public rallies have also been held in towns and cities, giving encouragement to those who insist that democracy is alive and well.
However, widespread insecurity, allegations of government interference and the controversial backgrounds of those running for office are threatening to undermine the entire process.
Mohammed Ismail Yoon owns Zhwandoon TV, a television station based in Kabul. He summed up the situation facing Afghanistan in stark terms.
“The election has no legitimacy,” he said. “It’s lawless, it will not happen nationwide and it is not acceptable for the nation. But there is no other way that is better.”
From an original list of eleven candidates, eight are still standing and there is no clear favourite among them. The three considered to be frontrunners have all served in Mr Karzai’s government but only one is rumoured to have his backing.
That man is Zalmai Rassoul, who spent years living in Europe as a supporter of Afghanistan’s exiled royal family before returning to Kabul and being appointed as foreign minister. After a quiet start to the campaign his public profile has surged of late as the perception grows that he has the president on his side. Despite this, a recent opinion poll showed him trailing far behind his main rivals.
One of them is Abdullah Abdullah, a former member of the Northern Alliance movement that fought the Taliban regime. He finished second in the 2009 election that was plagued by fraud.
The other is Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former World Bank technocrat who came a distant fourth in 2009. He has chosen a notorious warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, as his pick for first vice president.
There is little to choose between the three favourties on political matters. Most notably, all have vowed to sign a long-term security agreement that would keep a few thousand American troops in the country beyond the end of this year. Their other campaign promises are short on detail but Mr Yoon said policy issues would have no great bearing on the result.
He predicted a candidate’s ethnicity would be the most crucial factor, followed by government influence, financial muscle and media support.
Afghanistan is traditionally ruled by a Pashtun such as Mr Karzai, Mr Rassoul and Mr Ahmadzai. Mr Abdullah has mixed parentage but is regarded as a Tajik because of his political history - a potentially key obstacle to victory.
Much of the insurgency is already fuelled by a belief that former Northern Alliance members have monopolised power here since 2001, dominating the government and political opposition while a Pashtun symbolically holds the presidency. Given the backgrounds of the candidates and their running mates, this is unlikely to change significantly whoever wins.
That means the next president and his deputies will face a Taliban movement that has described the election as a “theatrical charade” and threatened anyone involved.
Kabul appears to have been a particular target for the insurgents during the campaign. On March 20 gunmen entered a luxury hotel, killing at least nine people, including a local journalist and four foreigners. Some international election observers left the country in response.
Suicide bombers in the capital have also launched two assaults on offices of the Afghan commission responsible for organising the election and hit the ministry of interior. In another incident, an American aid organisation was attacked - sparking a four-hour gun battle.
Security measures across the country will be extremely tight on Saturday. Preliminary results are due to be announced on April 24 and if no one gains more than 50 per cent of the vote the top two candidates will enter a run-off. They will then hope to win the backing of the six men who have dropped out, pushing the second round decisively in their favour.
That is when the influence of Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf could become important. An outsider in the race for the presidency, he is nevertheless a powerful figure.
Educated at Al Azhar University in Egypt, he led one of the seven largest Afghan sunni mujaheddin parties of the 1980s anti-Soviet resistance. Many of the Arab fighters who joined the struggle fought under him.
Mr Sayyaf became heavily involved in the civil war that followed and is now one of the most outspoken critics of the Taliban, calling for suicide bombers arrested by the government to be hanged in public. His campaign manager, Bashir Ahmad, told The National security should be the first priority for the next president.
“If the head of the government is a strong man [it’s good],” he said. “If he’s a weak man there will be too many problems - he cannot control Kabul.”
Taliban threats will not be the only factor affecting voter turnout on Saturday. Disillusionment with the democratic process may also keep large numbers of people away.
While there have been undoubted improvements in education, health and women’s rights since 2001, Afghanistan has not progressed as hoped. Much of the country is still mired in poverty and the economy is now faltering amid uncertainty about the future.
Mohammed Hassan Yousefi was sitting on a wall in a neighbourhood of west Kabul, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Aged 69, he does not intend to take part in the election.
“Before I voted, but this year my heart does not allow me to,” he said.
A former refugee in Iran, Mr Yousefi returned to Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in expectation of a better life. He is now scared of what lies ahead.
“Several times I have voted for Karzai. I kept saying this time it well get better, this time it will get better, but each time the bad luck increased,” he said.
Updated: April 3, 2014 04:00 AM