Political Landscape

Campaign Trail 8: A multipolar election in the Afghan West 1


Herat is the second largest province of the country and the most populous after the capital. Its importance is reflected in the considerable number of parliamentary seats it is allocated, 17, and the outcome of the forthcoming elections will thus significantly contribute to defining the new parliament’s outlook. Through interviews with candidates, officials and other Heratis, AAN analyst Fabrizio Foschini got a look at the major political features of the province.

Herat province’s almost two million inhabitants will have the choice among 150 candidates on 18 September (one candidate who was recently killed and two more who were excluded are still displayed on the ballot paper). According to estimates by the local Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), as much as 850,000 votes are expected to be cast in the province. This might be optimistic, as last year the turnout did amount to around 400,000 votes for the Provincial Council and presidential elections.
Although its capital city is famous as one of the most cultivated strongholds of Persian culture in Afghanistan and, because of its long urban tradition, has a strong way of shaping the identity of its inhabitants – an ability that Kabul has partly lost with the factional in-fighting of the 1990s and the subsequent ethnic polarization -, Herat is a culturally and ethnically mixed province. Its countryside displays Pashtuns and Tajiks, different groups of Aimaqs, some Turkmens and Baluchs.

In the city itself, there also a Hazara community that constitutes the most recent wave of immigrants in the province. Although of different social backgrounds, these Hazaras settle in a single city neighbourhood, Jibraili, and are still resented as intruders by many older residents. This adds to the secluded and community-oriented approach their politics tend to acquire even in a relatively cosmopolitan urban setting like Herat city. They further differentiate themselves for the good relations they enjoy with Iran, far better than those entertained by the autochthonous Herati Shias – also known as Farsiwan (but not Tajik) – whom they probably now outnumber; the two communities may share the same confession but they seem to have different sets of candidates and political agendas.

One of the more visible general trends in this year’s elections in Herat is the presence of a high numbers of businessmen running as candidates. Talking to some of the most visible candidates (judged on the basis of the quantity and dimension of their electoral posters), one realizes that they are in fact a pack of tojjar, big merchants, set out to grab a parliamentary seat. Amongst them are Munawar Shah Bahaduri, the owner of the Pamir Cola soft drinks company, and Ghulam Qader Akbar, the previous president of the provincial Department of Commerce hailing from Pashtun Zarghun district; like the former he enjoys both Pashtun tribal support in the countryside and his elite urban status. Further there are Muhammad Halim Taraki, from a big merchant family which gives the city its mayor (his brother); Farhad Majidi, a rich trader who seems to be close to the Ulema Council of Herat; Wahid Sediqi, a dealer in cooking gas making huge profits through Torghundi, the border crossing to Turkmenistan; originally from Farah province, he settled in the richer and safer environment of Herat long ago and Ali Jan Mamnun, reportedly one of the richest man in town. Last not least Muhammad Rafa Watandost who is involved in the mining business (to remind us that not every Hazara is a proletarian). This list of capitalists (who someone labeled ‘the economic mafia’) could go on much longer.

As to the motives driving this group, it is difficult to get beyond polite and patriotic answers – after all we are still in electoral campaign. But it can be assumed that the Herati entrepreneurs’ will to seeking out alliances with the Kabul bureaucrats gives another proof of their business acumen. In deep contrast with the reciprocal disdain politicians and merchants used (or at least pretended) to harbour towards each other in pre-war Afghanistan, the new nature of both business and politics are irremediably intertwined now (and that is no good development, in case of any doubt): The keys to an enduring economic fortune lie with solid contacts into the political world, just as political power is achieved and maintained to a large extent through economic leverage (preferably, with some power of intimidation in the background).

Meanwhile, craftsmen and small industry are in crisis because they find it hard to compete with imported items, and intellectual and cultural production, once a key asset of Herat’s wealth, is becoming undervalued. As a result, the city’s middle class is declining, moving to Kabul or to Iran in search of better opportunities. As a result, local UN offices experience difficulties in hiring qualified female personnel, a problem they never faced in past years, given the high percentage of educated women in the city. The population at large is facing an increase in unemployment, and one MP running again as candidate recalled being regularly asked by young electors at gatherings why he had been unable, in five years in parliament, to find jobs for them.

Another surprising aspect of Herati politics is the comparative weakness of political parties, in a major urban centre famous for its educated people. Instead, most of the interviewees agreed that they lag behind other forms of affiliations that shape the political arena.

One major exception to this rule seems to be Afghan Millat. The Pashtun nationalist party (official name: Social Democratic Party) led by Anwar al-Haq Ahady has striven to build a strong presence in the province and is presenting – albeit unofficially – five candidates in the oncoming elections(*). Local opinion has it, however, that the party’s efforts to reach out for support are still quite shallow, and that without government support its lack of roots in the province’s social fabric would lead to electoral failure.

The other party who turns out to be decisively influential is, of course, theHezb-e Wahdat faction of Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili. The Hazara party has one official candidate in Herat province, Shaikh Muhammad Musa Reza’i, but, thanks to its welfare programs in the Hazara neighbourhoods, also some leverage on most of the other Hazara candidates.

Other national parties or local formations are present too (for an analysis ofHezb-e Mosharekat-e MelliKangara-ye Melli and “Tajik Shura” candidacies see another forthcoming blog), but other forces beyond them too. Behind almost every political development in Herat still lingers the shadow of Ismail Khan, even if, according to many observers, it casts by now a lighter hue. As one candidate put it: “He has not the power anymore to have the people doing whatever he says.” The loosened grip of the former Amer six years after his forceful removal from the province is confirmed by UN officials.

The opposing faction inside the old Jamiat party linked to the Afzali family who harbours a two-decades long rivalry with Ismail Khan, has also produced its candidates: Mo’allem Hafizullah and Faruq Majruh from Gulran, who enjoys some popularity, especially among the lower classes. Anyway, Ismail Khan is said to have held a special meeting with candidates recently, where their candidacy would have needed to receive his nihil obstat. The success achieved by this initiative it is not clear, but some names, like that of Nesar Faizi Ghuriani, are considered to be especially close to him. Also, some candidates that in the past were at odds with him are now on better terms with him. This includes Rafiq Ahmad Shahir, the former head of the city’s Professionals Shura, one of the most influential independent organisations in the country. This shows that Ismail Khan’s goodwill is still considered a basic asset to run in a Herat election with a chance.

Part 2 will follow.

(*) Four of them are Pashtuns – former MPs Aziz Ahmad Nadem (an Alikozay from Pashtun Zarghun) and the three newcomers Muhammad Ma’aruf Fazli, Aziza Mohaki and Ghulam Ahmad Danesh, all highly educated, while Rahima Jami is an Aimaq, a sign of the party’s attempts to get away from its former strict ethno-centrism which made them being called ‘Pashtun chauvinists’ – or worse – by critics. Ms Jami has been actively campaigning for Karzai during last year’s presidential election – and Afghan Millat is part of what could be called a pro-Karzai alliance. She reportedly accepted to run with Afghan Millat mainly because of economic incentives and promise of support in the campaign.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape, Turkmenistan