Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Elections 2014 (15): Hazaras overturning all expectations

Qayoom Suroush 9 min

Before the elections, no-one had expected Abdullah Abdullah to win the Hazarajat’s votes, especially by such a large margin. His strong showing here – and that of his vice president, Mohammad Mohaqeq – could have consequences for the presidential election as a whole; the Hazaras, as one of the largest minorities in the country, could play an important role in a potential second round. In his second piece on Bamyan’s elections (see the first here), AAN’s Qayoom Suroush (with input by Fabrizio Foschini and Thomas Ruttig) looks deeper into where Abdullah’s rivals may have gone wrong in expecting more support from Hazaras and why Abdullah seems to have proven far more attractive.

"Lining up to vote for change": Hazaras in Bamyan on election day. Photo: Qayoom Suroush

On the day after the elections, AAN visited Bamyan’s provincial office of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami (Islamic Unity Party), the Hazara party led by Second Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili who supports Ashraf Ghani. The compound was quiet. Only a few drivers sat in the yard, discussing the elections. One of them tried to console his friends, “Don’t worry, even if we lost in Bamyan, we will still win across the country.” Inside the office, the atmosphere was as subdued. Observers had reported back that Abdullah Abdullah was clearly in the lead in the preliminary results. An elder man said sadly, referring to the voters, “What have these people done?”

Indeed, what have they done – and why?

Candidates underestimated Hazaras’ disappointment

Speaking to Bamyanis, it seems as if the supporters of Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassul had misjudged both the number of votes they would receive in Bamyan as well as the motivations behind people’s decision-making. Members of both camps told AAN that they thought the current regime had been the best for Hazaras in a long time, that it had helped Hazaras to recover from historical oppression and discrimination (1) and gain their share of power and influence. Since Ghani and Rassul both served as ministers and policymakers in the current regime, Hazaras – this was the assumption – would surely support them as representatives of a the regime. In addition, the powerful Hazara vice president, Karim Khalili, stood behind Ghani, and Khalili’s party was considered the strongest of the various Hazara parties (2), at least in this province. According to members of the Ghani team, Khalili had clearly expected that, due to his influence, his party member, Sarwar Danesh, who is Ghani’s candidate for second vice president and a former justice minister, would get a solid chunk of the vote. In Zalmai Rassul’s team, with Habiba Sarobi (who had served as governor in Bamyan and minister of women’s affairs) as second vice president, the thinking was similar.

However, both failed to understand that for Hazara voters, there seemed to be a difference between supporting the current political system – an elected government with at least democratic ambitions – and its leading political figures. As some Bamyanis stated, these political figures “have not fulfilled their promises to the Hazaras.” They mentioned for example that during the 2009 presidential election campaign, President Karzai and Khalili, then his second running mate, had promised to build a road from Kabul to Herat passing through the centre of Afghanistan, and that they would upgrade the Hazara-dominated districts of Jaghori (in Ghazni province) and Behsud (in Wardak) to become separate provinces. The Karzai-Khalili team won in Bamyan in 2009 with 39.1 per cent of the vote (see the IEC’s 2009 figures for Bamyan here). The road, however, was never built and the districts remained districts.

Bamyanis also complained to AAN that the government had never provided proper electricity and water supplies, although “civil society activists have demonstrated and protested many times.” They fondly remembered for example how, in May 2011, activists hung a huge oil lamp in a square in the centre of the city (it was later named Alikain Square – or hurricane lamp square) – to draw attention to the lack of electricity (see here). In a mock ceremony in March 2011, activists also awarded a donkey for supplying water to their homes, as the government would not do it.

Abdullah’s Hazara running mate, on the other hand, Mohammad Mohaqeq, another heavy-weight Hazara politician (but from the northern province of Balkh) and former planning minister, had managed to get Daikundi made into a province. He had also broken ties with President Karzai in March 2013 in a public gathering. He said that the president had not fulfilled his promises to Hazaras, and that, for that reason, he no longer supported him. The move helped him regain some of the supporters he had lost when, in 2005 and allegedly at the president’s request, he had tried to help Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf become speaker of the parliament’s lower house; in 2011 he was involved in a similar situation, mediating between the two main contenders for the same post, one of which was Sayyaf; our analysis here and here). Hazaras have generally opposed Sayyaf, given the nasty war between his faction and Hezb-e Wahdat in west Kabul during the civil war.

Anti-Ghani propaganda by video clips

Part of the motivation to vote for Abdullah might have also been to prevent the Ghani-Danesh ticket from winning. A source from the Ghani team told AAN that many voters had been warned about Ghani, with propaganda derogatively introducing him as a Kuchi  – he does come from a Kuchi background – and “pro-Taleban.” Rival candidates, the source said, had distributed what he called “disturbing video clips”. Upon checking, AAN found that indeed videos existed. One exaggerated the land conflict between Hazaras and Kuchis; a conflict that had been exacerbated when the Taleban, while in power, had supported the position of the (Pashtun) Kuchis. (3) Sources from the Ghani team told AAN that, in meetings during the campaign, Ashraf Ghani had said a way needed to be found to resolve the Kuchi-Hazaras dispute; some suggestions can also be found in his election manifesto (manshur). (The manifesto was only uploaded to his website on 31 March, less than a week before the election and it is not clear how happy Ghani himself is with it; he apparently delayed its uploading until members of his team threatened to leave; it has also not been translated into Pashto.) Ghani himself never mentioned the need for a solution for Kuchi-Hazara tensions during his rally in Bamyan, which made people wonder whether he would really be willing to address the issue as president.

In another video clip that was widely distributed, Ghani supporters, General Abdul Wahid Taqat, an ex-military officer turned political analyst and Pashtun nationalist, and Ismail Yun, the owner of Zhwandun TV and also Pashtun nationalist, discussed Afghanistan’s history in a televised discussion. Taqat said that all ethnicities of Afghanistan, except the Pashtuns, were “bastards” (harami) and “strangers” who do not originate from Afghanistan. This, of course, raised considerable emotions in the Hazarajat.

Ethnic consideration will probably indeed have played a role in determining voters’ decisions in favour of Abdullah. If Abdullah wins, it would be the first time since Afghanistan was founded by King Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1747, that a president with a mixed ethnic background – half Tajik, half Pashtun – was in power. Two days after the vote, on 7 April, the well-known Hazara writer and political activist, Mohammad Amin Halimi, wrote on the Rasaana website (which publishes Hazara writers) that Hazaras “had voted for this change.” Halimi stated that whether Abdullah was “good or bad; democrat or racist – in the elections, he stood for political, social and cultural change – change of the mono-ethnic ruling culture and political tradition.” Ghani and Rassul, on the other hand, were the symbols of the continuity of mono-ethnic governance, Halimi added.

Not on Facebook, but among clerics

The way people voted in Bamyan in the first round of the elections also came as a surprise because it had not been foreseen through the ‘electronic grapevine.’ On social media, like Twitter or Facebook, it seemed that most Hazaras were staunch supporters of Ashraf Ghani. Looking back, this might have had to do with the fact that social media users are usually from the so-called ‘intellectual class’ (roshan fekr) which indeed seemed to support Ghani. Yet  the majority of Bamyanis are still illiterate, meaning social media could not predict the votes Abdullah would get at the community level. In addition, while Abdullah’s supporters were not very present on Facebook, they were rather active in networks of clerics and elders. As AAN learned, they apparently also worked with Bamyan’s shuraha-ye mahal (local councils) to win votes, and motivated mullahs to preach that it was haram (religiously forbidden) to vote for Ashraf Ghani, on the grounds that he was “secular and pro-west” and, ‘lamentably’, that his wife was not a Muslim.

A counter-campaign

There is no doubt that the Hazara vote might play a key role in a potential second round, not only in Bamyan. For now, the majority seems to be on Abdullah’s side. This could be reinforced when the Kuchis, in their seasonal wanderings arrive in disputed areas (every year in late spring), including in Hazara-populated Behsud. In previous years, some of the fiercest clashes between Hazaras and Kuchis took place here (see earlier AAN analysis here), reminding Hazara voters that one of the rival presidential hopefuls has a Kuchi background himself. (More background on these conflicts in a 2013 AAN paper here.)

The tug-of-war over the Hazara vote for a potential second round has already started. The Hazara heavy-weight in the Ghani team, Karim Khalili, is too skilled a politician not to try to turn the first-round setback around. His supporters are already warning Hazaras via social media, blogs and in small meetings of activists, that a president who is half Tajik would not necessarily bring the changes they want. They also raise the question whether Abdullah would be able to keep the south stable, implying this may result in a further strengthening of the Taleban, with all its possible implications for the conflicts with the Kuchis in the Hazarajat.

The IEC’s preliminary count of 50 per cent of the polling stations (published 20 April 2014) showed that, so far, the majority of Ghani’s votes came from Pashtun dominated provinces, while Abdullah’s votes came from provinces predominantly populated by Tajiks and Hazaras. So far, Hazaras seem to have voted for Abdullah pretty well en bloc, adding significantly to his success. This could be seen in Bamyan where 82 per cent of citizens are Hazara and Abdullah, so far, has won 67 per cent of the counted vote (Bamyan also has minorities: the districts of Kahmard and Saighan are ethnically mixed, but importantly majority Sunni and anti-Hezb-e Wahdat – a key political cleavage going back at least to the early days of the jihad and still an important consideration.) (4) In Daikundi where 86 per cent of citizens are Hazara, Abdullah has, so far, won 73.55 per cent of the vote. Since the Hazaras form the third largest majority in the country and may well be the most active community in terms of political mobilisation for elections, getting their votes may determine which way the scale of power tips nationally in a potential second round.


(1) The Hazaras’ oppression started in the 1890s when Amir Abdul Rahman (ruled 1880-1901) occupied the hitherto semi-autonomous Hazarajat in a violent military campaign in order to establish a united, centralised Afghan state. Kuchi tribesmen were an important part of his troops and they, together with their Pashtun commanders, were promised parts of the occupied lands. When the Hazaras resisted, the Amir sought the support of Sunni religious leaders and tribal contingents, giving the conflict a sectarian undertone and promising his volunteer militia an opportunity to loot at the end of it. His troops killed many Hazaras and sold their women as slaves; many others lost their lands or pastures to Kuchi nomads. From then, until the collapse of the Taleban regime, the Hazaras – both as an ethnic and a religious (Shia) minority – were socially and politically marginalised in Afghan society and excluded from most positions of power, particularly in the military. Only during the PDPA regimes, between 1978 and 1992, did these exclusions wane, with the appointment of Hazaras into leading political positions (like prime minister), the establishment of Hazara military units and what then was intended to be a new ‘Hazara’ province, Saripul. The Hazarajat – except two mainly inactive garrisons in Bamyan and Yakowlang – was early on liberated from PDPA and Soviet troops and the Hazara mujahedin party, Hezb-e Wahdat, also played a prominent part in the struggle for Kabul. The broader participation of Hazaras in national politics fully developed only after the fall of the Taleban in 2001.

(2) Hezb-e Wahdat split into four factions after 2001. Apart from Khalili’s mainstream Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (Islamic Unity Party), there are Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan (People’s Islamic Unity Party) led by Mohammad Mohaqeq; Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Melli-ye Islami (National Islamic Unity Party) led by MP, Mohammad Akbari and Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mellat-e Afghanistan (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan’s Nation) led by Qurban Ali Erfani (the latter two are not officially registered). With the establishment of Hezb-e Ensejam-e Melli (National Harmonisation Party), a new post-2001 Hazara party has appeared on the scene, members of which hold several key position in the area. It is led by Najibullah Sadeq Modaber, who, as head of the Office of Administrative Affairs, is a powerful figure in the presidential apparatus. There are also the Hezb-e Kar wa Tause’a (Labour and Development Party), established after 2001 and led by Zulfeqar Khan Omid, and the recently established Hezb-e Mellat-e Afghanistan (Afghanistan Nation Party), led by Jafar Mehdawi, both with some peripheral influence (see here).

(3) The Kuchi-Hazara conflict started as a result of Amir Abdul Rahman’s campaign (see footnote 1) during which he distributed Hazara land to Kuchis. Although, at least in some areas (including in Uruzgan province), a demarcation line was established between Hazara and Pashtun-inhabited lands, in some areas the Pashtuns encroached further. Moreover, additional land fell into their hands due to economic developments: the Kuchis, acting as long-distance traders, provided the Hazaras with goods, often on a loan basis, for which, if not paid back, they claimed land, often to be returned to the old owners on a sharecropping basis. During the 1980s and 1990s, armed Hazaras often prevented the Kuchis from using pastures in the Hazarajat and stopped paying rent, interest or income from the sharecropping. During the era of the Taleban (whom many Kuchis supported) the Kuchis briefly returned with political and armed power and went on a rampage against locals, symbolically grazing their flocks on people’s crops. The need to prevent a repetition of the pre-war situation of exploitation – or of the violence of the Taleban time – has since become a major rallying point of Hazara politics and public opinion. For further background on these conflicts, see also this AAN paper.

(4) During the Taleban regime, a number of commanders from both districts cooperated with the Taleban, as did the Akbari faction of Hezb-e Wahdat. On local but cross-province dynamics, see also this AAN dispatch.


Ashraf Ghani Bamyan elections 2014 Hazaras voters votes