Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Election 2014 (23): Deals and insults in Afghanistan’s second round campaign

AAN Team 6 min

Less than a week before the second round of the presidential election on 14 June 2014, the campaigns of both contenders are well under way. Alongside the main campaign methods of the first round – billboards, large public rallies – the process of deal-making and recruiting influential supporters seems to have now moved to the foreground. This has made the second round campaign largely one of ‘winning the hearts and minds of big figures’, in the hope of also gaining the votes of their followers. The campaign teams have also increasingly traded jibes and verbal attacks, particularly in public speeches and on social media, leading the IEC to call on candidates and their followers to refrain from polarising statements. The AAN team provides an overview of where we are, this late in the game.

Some new style campaigning: "Vote for the Kandahari brother Dr Abdullah". Photo: social media

Over the last few weeks, more or less all prominent Afghans have been faced with the question of which campaign to attach themselves to. Negotiations have gone through ebb and flow, with the candidates sometimes pursuing those with possible vote banks and prestige, and in other cases sitting back waiting to be courted themselves.

Most of the unsuccessful first round presidential candidates have by now made their choice. Zalmai Rassul, who came third in the first round with 11.37 per cent of the vote, endorsed Abdullah’s team, together with his second vice presidential candidate Habiba Sarabi. They joined Abdullah apparently based on the agreement that if he won, the programs and plans of both teams would be implemented (see report here).

Rassul’s other running mate, Ahmad Zia Massud, a brother of the late Ahmad Shah Massud, opted differently and joined the Ghani team. Massud’s decision was an important one for Ghani, addressing the issue that his team had no prominent Tajik on board so far. For Massud, on the other hand, it means joining a team that is considerably less crowded in terms of rival politicians from his own Jamiat/Shura-ye Nazar circle. In exchange for his endorsement, Ghani has reportedly promised to make Massud his third vice president, which may or may not necessitate a change of the constitution (interpretations differ). Muhammad Daud Sultanzoy, who came in second to last with 0.47 per cent, also joined Ghani.

Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf’s team and Gul Agha Sherzai, who came fourth and sixth, respectively, with 7.04 and 1.57 per cent of the votes, also endorsed Abdullah. Sayyaf himself did not openly join Abdullah’s team, though. He was not present at the endorsement ceremony, which was attended by both his vice-presidential candidates, Ismail Khan and Abdulwahab Erfan, and his larger team, including Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi and Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, speakers of the Lower and Upper House of the parliament. The meeting had an outright jihadi flavour and did imply his backing.

Among the other influential politicians who also opted for Abdullah’s team, are two relatives of the outgoing president, Mahmud Karzai, a brother and member of the Rassul campaign in the first round, and Jamil Karzai, a cousin of the president who is a former MP and head of a minor political party. Amrullah Saleh, ex-chief of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Ismail Khan, the powerful former Herat governor and vice-presidential running mate of Sayyaf, neither of whom had supported Abdullah in the first round despite their Jamiat backgrounds (Ismail Khan was with Sayyaf and Amrullah remained neutral), also joined Abdullah.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai received the support of the ‘Hezb-e Islami Council’ headed by Wahidullah Sabawun. This council is a largely election-related (and therefore maybe temporary) coalition of some heavy-weight provincial Hezb-e Islami leaders and Sabawun’s break-away Hezb-e Islami faction that did not follow party leader Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal’s pro-Abdullah option. (Neither side supported fellow-Hezbi Qutbuddin Helal, a former deputy of and chief negotiator for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; Hekmatyar tacitly supported Helal in the first round. More background on Hezb’s complicated election policies by AAN here.) (1)

Another brother of the president, Qayyum Karzai, also declared his support for Ghani, leaving the Karzai family split – or, in another interpretation – strategically placed on both tickets.

Last but not least, Hazrat Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, a former jihadi leader and religious scholar who considers himself a key player, announced his support for Ghani on the very first day of the runoff campaign. Mojaddedi said that he did an estekhara (a prayer when someone is undecided on an important issue and asks for the solution to come in a dream) which indicated Ghani should be the leader of Afghanistan. Mojaddedi later followed this up with an even more explicit recommendation on Kabul-based Negah TV where he declared Abdullah not fit for presidency as “authority has historically belonged to the Pashtuns.” Abdullah was not amused and countered during a public gathering that a country’s leader should not be elected through falbini (soothsaying). Ghani’s team countered by accusing the Abdullah team of insulting an Islamic rite.

So far, the mood seems to be that the Abdullah team has been more successful in pulling a wide range of powerful and other well-known personalities to its side. (On 6 June, Dr Abdullah and his deputy Khan Muhammad became the target of a suicide attack after a campaign meeting held in Kabul as the result of which four of his bodyguards were killed and 37 civilians injured. This was the so far most severe attack during the election campaign.) With a vote of 45 per cent in the first round (full results here), he did have the better starting position vis-à-vis Ghani’s (who lagged behind with 31.56 per cent) to suggest that joining his campaign would mean jumping on a winning bandwagon. This may well have attracted some of the heavy-weights (and many of the lighter-weights) hoping to be rewarded with cabinet, governor and ambassadorial posts after a win.(2)

It is far from clear, however, whether voters will follow. This is particularly pertinent in the case of the other presidential candidates. Several of the tickets have fragmented, making it likely that the votes will disperse, too. Moreover, many voters arrived at their first decision after a complicated weighing of competing loyalties and considerations. It is difficult to predict what that will translate into in this second round. This is compounded by the splitting of parties, families and vote banks between the two camps, whether through lack of consensus or for tactical reasons.

Getting personal, ethnic and religious

With the final run-off coming closer, the tone in the campaigns – which was fairly moderate for most of the first round campaign –is getting nastier, more personal, with some ‘ethnic’ and even religious undertones, and is sometimes echoed by saheb-nazaran (‘pundits’) on TV. Using such language, however remains a risky strategy, in an everyday culture that prefers civility and among a population now increasingly wary of ethnic or religious strife (see AAN analysis here and here). Some remarks were widely condemned on social media but at the same time, anonymous social media accounts had also spread those remarks in the first place.

There are also substantial issues at stake, linked to corruption and the alleged lack of impartiality of the election commissions. Former Kandahar and Nangrahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai, now supporting Abdullah, for instance, demanded that Ghani apologise for his “false remarks” about him and threatened to lodge a complaint with the Attorney General if Ghani does not do so. Zia Massud accused the Abdullah team of having sided with the looters of Kabul Bank, one of Afghanistan’s most striking and still unprosecuted cases of looted public funds, described as a large Ponzi scheme (also read AAN’s report on Kabul Bank here). Although these are real, and serious, issues, the way they have been raised during the campaign is populist as well, aimed at garnering votes rather than addressing them.

Mohaqeq, in a televised interview accused IECC chairman Abdulsatar Sadat and IEC’s Zia ul-Haq Ammarkhel of supporting Ghani, implying that this was based on ethnicity – an accusation that has been widely repeated by Abdullah’s supporters. Balkh Governor Muhammad Atta Nur, a key supporter of Abdullah, blew the same horn, blaming some IEC members of preventing his ally Abdullah’s victory in the first round, adding that Ghani would be “swept from” the political landscape in the second round. The Ghani team lodged an official complaint with the IECC, asking for Atta’s removal from his current post for partiality.

The increasingly polarised language between the two sides is an indication of the high stakes of the presidential contest in its last phase, the fear that the game will not be played fairly and the willingness to play dirty, at least by some. Such conduct is on the whole likely to put off rather than mobilise the electorate. But because both sides seem to have engaged in such ‘missteps’, it is unlikely that the increased polarisation will swing the vote in one or other direction. It could however sour the mood, if it continues up to and beyond election day.

(1) In the meantime, Hekmatyar’s party’ newspaper Shahadat, in an article titled “First freedom from foreign invaders, then president” seems to have distanced itself from the elections in general again.

(2) Gul Agha Sherzai, however, denied on 7 June that such promises were involved at least in his deal with Dr Abdullah.


Ashraf Ghani Campaign election