With less than a week to go before the deadline for registering the three-person tickets for next April’s presidential elections, still no major candidate has registered (although one, Ashraf Ghani, has resigned from his government position, a clear indication that he intends to run) and Dr Abdullah has just announced that he will register tomorrow, 1 October, with Hezb-e Islami former MP, Engineer Mohammad Khan and Hezb-e Wahdat leader, Muhammad Muhaqeq. Leaving it this late was only to be expected in a system without real parties or fixed political formations or indeed much ideology or policy proposals. Instead, potential presidents and vice presidents, their supporters and those with vote banks to offer are trying to coax, convince and find the perfect match to maximise their electoral chances. Kate Clark and Gran Hewad report (with input from Thomas Ruttig).
The race to come up with a winning presidential ticket is reminiscent of the sort of nineteenth century balls made famous in the novels of the British writer, Jane Austen. These formal dances were an opportunity for the unmarried – and their mothers – to encounter and size up potential spouses. Women might bring beauty, dowries and a youthful ‘bloom’, men wealth, titles and dashing good looks. Anyone looking for a potential match had to keep an eye on rivals because there were dangers: make or accept a marriage proposal too early and you lost the chance of the even better suitor you had yet to meet; leave the decision too late and you could find yourself married to someone who was unattractive, outlandish or poor or – and this was the worse fate for a nineteenth century woman – you could end up on the shelf, unmarried and unmarriable.
As in finding a spouse at a ball, the race to come up with a presidential ticket brings into play glamour, self-interest, skullduggery and a cool-headed estimation of one’s own and everyone else’s attractiveness.
With political parties almost inconsequential in the Afghan system and few natural, stable political alliances at play, what counts are your networks and allies, your ‘vote bank’ and how much money you can liquefy for the campaign. There is little ideology and fewer policy proposals, which means virtually anyone could be a match for anyone else. The result is a churning mass of possible alliances as Afghanistan’s political elites try to work out their best options.(1) Daily, or rather nightly, there are meetings between the various players and their agents and those who might end up as either allies or rivals. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig has given a detailed breakdown of possible candidates and alliances. Beyond that however, reports and gossip of who is with whom change daily, which makes them barely worth reporting except to give a flavour of the sparkling, murky mass of connections and possibilities.(2) With only six days to go, all is still to play for.
Because there are no politicians with convincing nationwide appeal, a ‘variegated’ ticket is considered one’s best chance for maximising votes. The conventional wisdom is that you need a Pashtun as presidential candidate with a Tajik and Hazara as running mates for the positions of first and second vice presidents in order to pick up votes from the three largest ethnic groups. This has led to a fracturing of the pre-election campaign alliances and of the tanzims – the powerful military-political groupings which, because of the nature of the long Afghan war, had become largely ethnically homogenous. We find, for example, different politicians from Jamiat-e Islami (a largely Tajik tanzim) politicians, wooing and being wooed by the various potential Pashtun candidates and the same is true for the leading members of the diverse factions of Hezb-e Wahdat (Hazara). The tanzim with the most stable vote bank – judging by past form – Jombesh is, unhappily for it, largely made up of members of Afghanistan’s fourth largest ethnic group, the Uzbeks, in a system where there is no fourth place on the presidential ticket. All such talk of ethnicity in Afghanistan may be distasteful, but it is also a fact of election life.
Overwhelming personal ambitions are also leading to a fragmentation of what, until very recently, looked like two relatively clear-cut political camps, that of the president and that of the opposition. The Palace crowd now seems to be running in four different directions, four possible candidates: Zalmai Rassul, Qayyum Karzai, Ashraf Ghani and Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf. The broad opposition alliance, the Electoral Union of Afghanistan, formed only a month ago, already looks like a thing of the past. (According to a report of Kabul-based daily 8 Sobh, the Jombesh representative has called the Union non-existent any more and said that former foreign minister Dr Abdullah, if he runs, will not be its candidate.) Moreover, with the president controlling the electoral institutions, many think he also controls the ways to power. Aspirants and kingmakers continue to fix their gaze on the incumbent. In the case of many Jamiat politicians, this leaves them trying to preserve or forge an alliance with his (so far undeclared) candidate, putting on hold whoever might be their more natural favourite.
The calculus of an Afghan election is immeasurable. Those promising the votes of their followers are district governors, heads of tribes, subtribes and clans, people with influential networks or senior positions in tanzims and other political groupings. Even Taleban are reported to be involved in the gathering of voter registration cards – a 100,000 of which are needed to register proof of one’s potential electability (see reporting here). Although many would like to support the candidate they think would be a good leader for the country or who has the best policies, in the end deciding who is most likely to win, or to provide resources at least while the race is on tends to trump all other considerations. All need to weigh promises carefully because not everything – whether votes or post-election rewards – will be delivered or indeed can be delivered. Last time round, both Jombesh and Muhaqeq’s wing of Wahdat felt betrayed by President Karzai after their crucial support for him in 2009 failed to deliver any of what they said he had promised.
The winner in this race really will win it all. The Afghan president has few constitutional checks and balances on his power and enjoys immense powers of patronage and dismissal. Back the wrong ticket and you may lose all possible rewards. All this means making a decision is risky. The first bids will have to firm up in less than a week’s time when the registration period ends and the initial lists of candidates and their running mates will be known. How the list will look is still impossible to predict, but we should expect some surprising matches when the music stops this coming Sunday.
But then, after all that, we should expect some more changes: candidates will be vetted to see whether they meet all criteria in the constitution and election law; candidates can still stand down in favour of others (and some of them will); and there are ambiguous legal loopholes that allow the reshuffling of vice-presidential candidates even after the registration has concluded. The political merry-go-round is set to continue long after 6 October.
(1) Shortly after this piece was published, Dr Abdullah announced that he would register his candidacy tomorrow, 1 October, with Engineer Mohammad Khan, head of the Kabul office of Hezb-e Islami and Muhammad Muhaqiq, head of one of the sternest break up factions of Hezb-e Wahdat. Muhaqiq, well known and with a robust vote bank was always likely to get on to a strong ticket. Mohammad Khan is a more interesting choice. He is from Qarabagh district of Ghazni and is a former commander, but not a famous one and a former MP, although he lost in the 2010 elections. He is active on the political committee of the legal wing of Hezb-e Islami (which is headed by Abdul Hadi Aghandiwal, the minister of economy).
There has already been condemnation by the insurgent wing of the movement for getting involved in alliance building, especially going into alliance with the old enemy, Jamiat-e Islami. The question will be whether Abdullah’s choice of a ‘Pashtun’ running mate, a relatively unknown member of Hezb, will bring that many votes to his campaign.
(2) A snap shot of reports and gossip which AAN can in no way verify, hence the use of the passive tense throughout, of who’s in and who’s out yesterday and today only (because who can predict tomorrow?) include:
Meetings in Marshal Qasim Fahim’s (First Vice President, Jamiat-e Islami commander, Tajik, from Panjshir) house. There were rumours that Fahim had invited the ‘northern elites’ to his house a few times while President Karzai was traveling to China. At first, it was said that he had offered Yunis Qanuni (fellow Jamiat, Tajik from Panshir, former speaker of the Parliament, MP) as first deputy to the man still assumed to be the Palace’s choice, foreign minister Zalmai Rassul (former royalist, Karzai loyalist, Pashtun). The next day, Fahim was said to be now supporting another fellow Jamiat from the Panjshir, opposition politician and 2009 candidate Dr Abdullah, and that he had promised those gathered in his house that he would bring Ustad Sayyaf (head of the mujahedin faction, Ittihad-e Islami, MP, Pashtun from Paghman, seen as a possible king-maker or possible presidential candidate himself) and Tajik Jamiat heavyweight from Herat, Ismail Khan, to Dr Abdullah’s electoral campaign. The public outcome of the meetings can be read here.
It was reported that the meeting in Fahim’s house included: Ahmad Zia Massud (former vice president and brother of famous Jamiat/Panjshiri commander, the late Ahmad Shah Massud) and Muhammad Muhaqeq (Hazara, Shi’a, leader of one of the fractured parts of the mujahedin faction, Wahdat-e Islami, from Mazar). Other ‘northern’ activists were also reported present but not the other Massud brother, Ahmad Wali, leader of Nuhzat-e Melli party and head of the Massud Foundation. However, rumours are that the promise to bring Sayyaf and Ismail Khan are unlikely to come good, which would make this coalition in support of Abdullah look vulnerable.
It is also said that there was a meeting in Dubai in which the ‘doctors without borders’ (Pashtun technocrat heavyweights with foreign education but lacking the sort of vote banks built up between comrades during the war) participated, along with Qayyum Karzai (the president’s brother, a businessman, Pashtun from Kandahar) and Ahmad Wali Massud. It was reportedly decided that Ahmad Wali would run as first deputy to Qayyum Karzai.
There are moreover insistent rumours that another of the doctors, the former United States ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad, still has the appetite to stand.
Muhaqeq has written and published a letter in which he responded to the rather critical “four pieces of freely given advice” from his erstwhile advisor, the newspaper proprietor, Dr Hossein Yasa. He justified his split from the National Front and the Electoral Union of Afghanistan and spoke about himself as Dr Abdullah’s second deputy. He further hinted that there were National Front meetings in Uzbekistan (presumably with Dostum), analysed intra-NFA politics and accused fellow National Front leader, Amrullah Saleh (Jamiat, Tajik from Panjshir, former NDS chief, now head of the Green Trend), of not having a social base and being too quick to make accusations. (See reports here and here). Saleh’s subsequent forceful reaction on Facebook became a top story in the local media.
In an interview, Hezb-e Islami stalwart Ghairat Bahir (son-in-law of the leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former detainee at Bagram) has lambasted party comrades, Qutbuddin Helal (has visited Kabul for peace talks) who has said would run in the upcoming elections, and Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal (minister of economy, leader of the ‘legal’ part of Hezb-e Islami) who is said to have joined the campaign of Dr Abdullah (until today he was credited the role of his first deputy). The ongoing talks between Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat are interesting because of the bitter and often bloody rivalry between them going back decades. According to Bahir, Arghandiwal and Helal’s decisions were personal and had nothing to do with the party.
Meanwhile, Hezb party and insurgent boss, Hekmatyar, in an interview called on the Afghan nation to strongly slap the face of the Northern Alliance. He also accused UNAMA of stuffing a million ballots in favour of the Northern Alliance (presumably Dr Abdullah) in the 2009 elections and still, he said, the ‘Northern Alliance’ could not win (see the interview here).
There are also reports that Ustad Nur Muhammad Atta (Jamiat former commander, Tajik, governor of Balkh, currently the most powerful man in the north) is going to support Dr Abdullah, as he did in 2009.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020