Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Elections or National Consensus: Which one wins?

Gran Hewad 9 min

The complexity of Afghanistan’s political spectrum and the traditionally overwhelming desire of Afghan leaders to keep power are major elements that have an effect on whether the political transition process – which continues simultaneous with the transition of security responsibilities – will be democratic. The ballot stuffing in the 2009 presidential and 2010 parliamentarian elections has reduced the credibility of the election results and of the electoral institutions to a very low level. This lack of credibility has turned into an argument for suspicion among a wide array of political actors that the results of the upcoming elections could again be engineered. In this context, an enthusiasm has been growing for a couple of months among them to reach what they call a pre-election ‘national consensus’ (ejma-ye melli), namely a single ‘consensus’ candidate that, in their view, would spare the country a neck-to-neck election campaign that could be politically divisive. AAN’s Gran Hewad is looking at the consensus supporters’ agenda and possible implications on coalition or team building in the run-up to the 2014 elections (with input by Thomas Ruttig).


A large number of political leaders are talking about reaching a ‘national consensus’ before the April 2014 presidential election. It was First Vice President Marshal Fahim who used that term for the first time in a speech on the occasion of the first anniversary of Takhar MP Mutaleb Bek’s assassination on 23 December last year, which was attended by AAN. In a passionate speech, the Marshal warned that an election without a national consensus could result in a war. He did not reject elections, though, but insisted that they should not result in a conflict.

This discourse gained more momentum when Zalmay Khalilzad, the former Afghan-American US ambassador to the UN, Iraq and Afghanistan, supported this idea in a much-discussed interview with Afghan private dailyHasht-e Sobh (8 am). Using the same term as Fahim (ejma-ye melli), Khalilzad argued that a national consensus is needed in order to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power after the second and final term of the current president ends and in order to take care of other governance problems. He said that one lesson learned from the recent history of this country is that if there was no consensus among the involved parties the issue soon could lead to the use of force. Khalilzad also said he has been actively involved in what he called ‘team building’ for such a national consensus before the 2014 elections. He has met with politicians at his residence in Kabul and given interviews to local media, making a number of observers in Kabul and outside believe that he might run in the upcoming elections himself (see here and here). As before the 2009 election, Khalilzad fans have started a campaign in his name, including creating pages on facebook.

Beyond a consensus candidate, thoughts about a political agenda around this concept have remained vague so far. As Faizullah Zaki, the spokesperson of the opposition National Front of Afghanistan (NFA), told AAN, ‘national consensus’ is something ‘everyone is talking about and everyone has his own notion about’. In the interpretation of some, a successful ‘consensus’ could even spare the country from holding elections altogether.

Only Atta Mohammad Nur, the governor of Balkh province and the second most influential Jamiat commander (after Marshal Fahim) in the north, has put forward some programmatic thoughts after he burst onto the political centre stage with an intensively publicised political event along with leaders of the opposition alliance, the National Front of Afghanistan (NFA), in late January (read AAN reporting here). He published a paper under the title ‘Ejma-ye Melli’ in February 2013.

Atta’s paper is a conglomerate of topics, spanning from anti-narcotics and disability affairs to education and health. However, it contains three main themes: the national consensus, elections and lessons learned, including some new positions and political messages as well.

The first chapter of the paper discusses the concept of a ‘national consensus’ as a way to rescue the country from the current crises and to determine how it is to be managed beyond 2014. According to this plan, a wide range of political and social actors are to discuss a five-point list of top priorities before the elections. The five topics on the list are: the compulsory holding of fair and transparent presidential elections, the possibility of changing the electoral mechanisms, the talks process and the peaceful return of the armed oppositions, the country’s management beyond 2014 and possible modalities for the remaining foreign troops after 2014. According to Atta’s paper, the discussion should involve the Afghan government, respected Jehadi leaders, parliament members, the political opposition, other political parties and groups, the armed opposition, civil society, famous women, enlightened and elite youths, influential and knowledgeable Ulema, scientists and experts, poets and authors, representatives of the disabled and other well-known personalities. Though Atta did not mention this term in the body of the paper at all, the composition of groups that he has suggested as main pillars of the structure that will decide on the consensus is almost a copy of the Loya Jirgas that have been organised by Afghan governments in the past. Atta’s allies in the political opposition vehemently reject the Loya Jirga concept because they see it as a back door to constitutional changes that might give Karzai a third term in office.

Atta’s proposed approach to the talks process with the Taleban and the integration of the insurgents into the political process can have multiple effects. While, conceptually, this feature of the paper could separate the author from the NFA leaders with whom Atta hadpublicly appeared in January, it could also be considered as a gesture of good will to attract the attention of the armed opposition and secure an option for him personally to talk with them. It also could signal to the pro-talks parties in the country his readiness for an alignment.

Another main issue the author addressed in the paper concerns the prestige and legal status after 2014 of politicians and parties, both those currently governing and the opposition. In order to counter the perception that the election winner could take everything again in 2014, Atta suggests that ‘based on our national thinking and traditions’ a High Leadership Council should be created that would include the current president and his vice presidents as well as the previous vice presidents and the supreme Jehadi leaders and would provide legal safety for them. This, in fact, amounts to immunity from prosecution in case breaches of law during their tenures are discovered. In addition, this council would have a consultative role in all upcoming national decision-making for the new government. With this new feature, Atta does not only reassure all Jehadi leaders and those in power of continued prestige and legal status, but he has taken a step ahead in creating more allies.

A debate of the hottest iron can already be found in the paper’s preamble: the issue of a federal system. Significantly, Atta describes this form of administrative system as ‘modern’ and ‘good’ but suggests, nevertheless, not implementing it because this would be equal to the country’s division, which was never acceptable. This is the first time that a leader from the north has opposed the federal system so clearly and frankly. With this, Atta also positions himself against the expressed desire of the NFA leaders Dostum, Mohaqqeq and Massud while signalling that he understands the concerns of Karzai and his allies who vehemently oppose federalism. He recommends, however, a decentralisation of power and says this should not be mistaken for federalism. Not only in this respect, Atta positions himself politically as a bridge between the presidential and the opposition camps – in fact, as the ideal consensus candidate.

There is nothing like this paper on the ‘national consensus’ by any other politician or party so far. Many politicians interviewed by AAN, however, have their opinions about it.

Dr Abdullah Abdullah, leader of the opposition National Coalition of Afghanistan (NCA) and the leading opposition candidate in the 2009 presidential elections, told AAN that any compromise on the elections – with the result that none would be held or postponing it – is unacceptable and would put the constitutional order in question. Abdullah added that the ANC will have its own candidate for the upcoming elections, regardless of whether other groups come up with a consensus candidate.

The registered faction of Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan (HIA) – a major party in country, with another faction in the insurgency – speaks about both finding a consensus candidate and about the need for a national consensus to reach a legitimate result in the upcoming elections. Eng Mohammad Khan, a former Ghazni MP and the current deputy leader of the party, said his party considers the security situation as the major threat for the elections. ‘There is no province with a conducive security situation for the elections, even not Kabul’, he explained. He also called the current set up of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which according to him, did not work well during the past two elections, and the current electoral law ‘challenges’ for the upcoming election. ‘What we have in mind as a consensus is a tentative idea’, he explained, ‘a bigger team of a hundred or so politicians instead of a three-people team [the candidate for president and two deputies]’. He also said that organising a Loya Jirga as has been mentioned by President Karzai in recent statements, however, has no legal base and ‘will not have the legal authority to make acceptable, lawful decisions on elections or the extension of his tenure’. He added that an internal HIA team was working on a decision about whether the party should field its own presidential candidate or support a consensus candidate from outside the party. If reaching a national consensus candidate was not possible, Hezb would try to have a consensus that was as broad as possible.

A somewhat similar position has been adopted by the Afghan Mellat Party. Systematic and lawful elections are an important part of the nation-building process, said Dr Rahim Pashtunyar, chairman of the party’s political committee. But the group favours a dialogue to reach a consensus on a joint candidate for the upcoming elections to avoid any conflict.

Hamidullah Faruqi, the spokesman of the Right and Justice Party, was more lukewarm about a ‘national consensus’. He called it ‘a legitimate discourse’, in particular regarding the right of political parties to create alliances and agreements to ensure legitimate election results. He said his party, which brings together many former leftists and technocrat returnees from the West and was launched as a reformist opposition in 2011, believed in organising elections according to the constitution, a position also taken by the 20-member Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalitions of Afghanistan (CCPPCA) that includes Faruqi’s party as well as the main opposition groups, NFA and NCA. Any gathering like a Loya Jirga or aShura-ye Hal-o-Aqd(1) to make decisions about the destiny of elections and or the transition of power would be illegitimate, however, in his party’s view, Faruqi added.

Zaki, a key leader of Jombesh party and the NFA alliance, alleges that what he calls ‘the ruling team’ – President Karzai and his supporters – is using the concept of ‘national consensus’ for an attempt to extend its power term, either directly or indirectly. He accused the Karzai team of – under the pretext of the on-going conflict and the transition of security responsibilities – trying to create a consensus around its own candidate by offering governmental facilities and positions to win allies. The NFA, Zaki says, shared Atta’s aims but followed another method for creating ‘national consensus’: in an extensive dialogue with parties that believe that the current governing team has failed, the NFA wanted to reach an agreement ‘on a team and an agenda for change – how to rescue the nation’. The basis for this consensus was the common view that the electoral law needs to be amended as well as the law about the structure and authorities of the IEC and Election Complaints Commission (ECC) as backed by the CCPPCA. This consensus would not include the Karzai team and would basically be an opposition consensus.

Also Afghanistan 1400, the recently established political civic movement mainly supported by young and educated Afghans, has raised its voice about the issue of elections and ‘national consensus’. In a statement published in 8am daily, the group voiced concerns about ‘results engineering’ and ‘backroom deals’ that could compromise the legitimacy of election results. The group recommends that a reformed electoral law be passed by parliament, asks the government to finance the elections through international donations rather than the national budget and demands that the government take more serious and clear steps for guaranteeing transparent elections.

The instigator of the debate, Zalmay Khalilzad, has tried to alley rumours that he might be thinking of himself as the ultimate consensus candidate, fed by an assumption held by many that he might enjoy at least some US support. But he chose not to deny it completely. ‘It is too early to say who will be the candidate… I have hung the candidate’s jacket out of the room for now’, he said in his much debated 8am interview. As he has no political party of his own and, as an Afghan, has not been visibly politically active in the country in the past, the question is what role he could realistically play in the upcoming elections, except that of a facilitator. If he were a candidate himself, he would be seen as pro-western in a time in which the relations of the country with the west are suffering a deep slump.

Given the traditionally overwhelming desire of Afghan leaders to keep, or reach, power, no one is working to revive the public trust in elections that has been totally undermined by the fraudulent past elections. The discussions about a possible reform of the electoral law by almost all parties are rather to show their reformist intentions to the public, but may in fact be nothing more than a tool to influence the election outcome in their favour. Even if a new electoral law is passed soon, which seems unlikely, it is open to debate as to whether this will have much effect – as the election’s timeline is already set, and five out of seven IEC commissioners were appointed in January 2012 for three years. And even if it is passed before 17 April 2013, the date when the current IEC chairman’s mandate is going to end, it would need radically new criteria for it to guarantee the independence of a newly appointed one.

In this situation, and with the disunity even among major opposition forces about what a ‘national consensus’ could look like and how it could be achieved, the chance of the initiative remaining in the hands of the team in power looks stronger. Its chances to succeed are bolstered by its authority over the electoral institutions and its potential for offering power sharing to other political actors by adopting some of their legitimate political demands, regardless of whether these offers will be honoured later, as the NFA leaders – who were Karzai allies in 2009 – can attest.

(1) Shura-ye Hal-o-Aqd is a council of religious leaders to select the leader of an Islamic state. Such a shura was held in 1992 after the mujahedin took power in Kabul and selected a successor for the interim president who had temporarily taken over.


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