Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

On Your Marks! Alliances and actors before the 2014 presidential election

Thomas Ruttig 12 min

Yesterday, 16 September 2013, the three-week period for registering candidates for the April 2014 presidential election started. The field of contenders will only have become clear, though, by the last day, 6 October 2013. Alliance building and political manoeuvring is continuing, as the two major camps – the supporters of President Karzai and a new opposition alliance – have failed so far to officially identify their favourites. “Transition czar” Ashraf Ghani may be joining the race as a possible third major candidate. In what might be a three-way competition, the presidential camp seems to be a nose ahead, with Foreign Minister Rassul emerging strongly, and attempting to lure some strongmen from the opposition’s ranks. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig looks at the current constellation and provides attachments with the lists of the major actors (with input by Gran Hewad and Obaid Ali).

Signs are increasing that Foreign Minister Dr Zalmai Rassul might be the candidate President Hamed Karzai supports in the 5 April 2014 presidential election. According to Azadi Radio, Karzai told Russian President Vladimir Putin – when meeting him on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in the Kyrghyz capital Bishkek on 13 September 2013 – that “one [possible] presidential candidate is with us in the room”. Shortly after, ToloNews reported that in that meeting Karzai had called Rassul a “probable candidate” in the upcoming election. An official endorsement has not been publicly given so far, although the President stated in late August that “a limited number of candidates … is good for the country.” He further said that “[i]f we have two presidential candidates, it would be better, but if we had four that is also not a problem”. On that occasion, Karzai mentioned the names of ‘jihadi leader’ Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, 2009 runner-up Dr Abdullah and the head of the transition board, Ashraf Ghani, as possible candidates.

When the Kabul-based Pajhwok news agency, quoting sources in the Independent Election Commission (IEC), reported the names of possible candidates who had picked up information packages for registration, the list did not include Rassul (for list, see Attachment 2). Although the registration period just started yesterday, 16 September 2013, it will only last for three weeks and every day of delay will make the collection of the required 100,000 signatures from at least 20 provinces more difficult for any candidate.(1)

Meanwhile, the Electoral Union of Afghanistan (EUA), a multi-party opposition alliance that came into being almost three weeks ago (see Attachment 1; our analysis here), has failed so far to announce its joint candidate – the self-declared raison d’ètre for its establishment. According to Afghan media reports (see for example here), the leaders of its two main component coalitions are still duelling for this position: Dr Abdullah, the leader of the National Coalition of Afghanistan and Karzai challenger in 2009, and Ahmad Zia Massud, the head of the National Front of Afghanistan who was Karzai’s first vice president between 2004 and 2009. Both have reportedly picked up the IEC registration packages (for the composition of this and other alliances, existing or potential, refer to Attachment 1).

Meanwhile, a long-emerging, second electoral alliance has yet to announce its existence. This is the alliance in which major pro-presidential parties (see Attachment 1) as well as a group of so-called Pashtun technocrats – known jokingly in Afghanistan as “doctors without borders” in Afghanistan, prominent individuals but without broad support from organised parties or movements – were expected to participate. It has been particularly pushed by Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, a former mujahedin leader, who has hosted a number of its meetings over the past months. The group’s foremost aim was to identify a so-called consensus candidate, bridging the gap between the “Karzai camp” and at least parts of the opposition (see our analysis here and here) and so avoid a polarising competition between two strong contenders in the April 2013 election. However, Karzai’s apparent anointing of Rassul as the presidential camp’s candidate, along with the emergence of the EUA as an opposition alliance and, indeed, some signs of defections from this putative, Pir Gilani-brokered alliance means it may never actually come into (official) existence.

Even so, this group was very recently joined by the Rights and Justice Party (Hezb-e Haq wa Edalat), originally founded as a third, reformist force in 2011, and one that had kept its distance from both the presidential camp and the opposition alliance EUA. Its most prominent leader – although not the party chairman – is former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar. Over the past days, AAN has learned, ‘transition czar’ Ashraf Ghani and two former interior ministers, Ali Jalali and Atmar, were still in the race to be this group’s front-runner(2) and the group was checking their ‘electability’ with those parties that did not join the opposition EUA.(3) According to the same source, Zalmai Khalilzad, a former US ambassador, and Qayyum Karzai, a brother of the President, were not willing to run anymore. But this group clearly has continued trying to persuade several key EUA elements to change sides, particularly General Abdul Rashid Dostum, relying on Atmar’s and Khalilzad’s good personal relationship with the Uzbek warlord. At the same time, it has reportedly rejected advances from another group, the so-called De Fikr au Amal Jirga (Thinking and Action Jirga, more here) to set up a purely Pashtun ticket, in order to avoid a confrontation with the opposition and mainly non-Pashtun EUA.(4)

It is not fully clear, however, whether the ‘Pashtun technocrats’ would field their own candidate if no consensus candidate emerges (which seems likely). A sign that it would not do so then is the – so far officially unconfirmed – decision of Ghani to leave this group and run on his own. He already did so in 2009, winning only 2.94 per cent of the vote. He has already set up a campaign office, used his trips in his official capacity to make himself better known countrywide and collected the IEC information package needed to register as a candidate.

Karzai’s supporters have already reached out to two men affiliated with the opposition EUA, one of its leaders, Muhammad Mohaqqeq, and the Balkh governor, Atta Muhammad Nur, with the offer to become running mates on a joint ticket with Rassul (see here and here). Both Atta and Mohaqqeq are currently affiliated with the opposition EUA. Mohaqqeq has confirmed these moves, adding that “talks [about that] with other members of the EUA are still on-going”. This means that he (and possibly Atta, too) have not given a definite answer yet, but that leaving the opposition was still an option. A combination of Rassul with Atta and Mohaqqeq would reflect the usual pattern: the presidential candidate would be a Pashtun and the two vice-presidential candidates a Tajik and a Hazara. The Uzbeks and Dostum however, would then end up being the proverbial fifth wheel on this wagon, making them possibly look for another ticket that gives them a vice-presidential option. Meanwhile, the president’s camp seems to have dropped jihadi leader Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf, who had still looked strong only a few weeks ago.(5)

With the internal rivalry between Dr Abdullah and Zia Massud, and the palace’s attempts to lure some of its members, the EUA could end up as an even narrower alliance than it is currently – one that, particularly if Dostum and/or Mohaqqeq left, would be too weak to win the 2014 election.

There are still also wild cards in the race. If former or current ministers Rahim Wardak, Atmar and Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi run, they might take percentage points from key candidates and, as Pashtuns, that would likely be from the President’s favourite. But one cannot be sure whether they really intend to run or whether registering as candidates would be used to negotiate key positions on another ticket’s subsequent administration. Registering still leaves the option to withdraw later from the race. Actually, this is possible up to election day.

The same reasoning might be behind another, regional, electoral coalition, the Afghanistan Eastern People’s Alliance (also called Eastern Unity Alliance in other sources), formed on 8 September 2013. It consists of MPs and tribal elders from all four provinces of Afghanistan’s eastern region (see reports here and here), with MP Mir Wais Yasini as its spokesman (he ran in the 2009 election when he scored 1.03 per cent of the votes). With Nangahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai, who might be in the contest himself, and senate spokesman Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, a Sayyaf sympathiser, this alliance seems to be too politically heterogeneous and might not hold together given the diverse ambitions of its key members. It has, however, been claimed as a potential ally by EUA leader Massud on Tolo TV on 18 August. This, if it came true, would drive a wedge into the Pashtun camp.

It is also difficult to judge whether a candidate like Sardar Muhammad Nader Naim, a second cousin of late King Zaher Shah,(6) might be able to raise a significant portion of the vote; this depends on whether the former royal family still has sufficient appeal, particularly among the large, young population that has no memory of the pre-war period under the king.

Another electoral alliance created by Sayed Ishaq Gailani on 5 September 2013 seems too weak to seriously influence the race. Apart from that of Gailani – who is a nephew of above-mentioned Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani but tends to go his own way politically, getting elected an MP in Paktika both in 2005 and 2010 – the other nine participating parties, some of them led by ex-leftists, are marginal. Only two are registered at all. Gailani’s claim that he has won the support of politically motivated Taleban (but that it is “not necessary to disclose their names”) seems to be exaggerated. “Everyone was searching to see a Taleban representative in the audience but no one managed to find one,” one observer of the press conference told AAN.

As of today, the large, younger generation of Afghanistan has shown no sign of being able to produce any independent candidate or develop a political agenda of its own that goes beyond those of the old generation of politicians, warlords and jihadi leaders that emerged in the 1960s and became prominent in the fight against the Soviets, or of the somewhat younger generation for which Karzai stands and that only entered the political arena after the fall of the Taleban.

If, however – as rumours in the social media have it (see for example here) – Farhad Darya, arguably the most popular Afghan singer alive,(7) joins the race, his ticket might collect protest votes mainly from young Afghans who are not inclined to vote either for a warlord or a pro-Karzai candidate because of their past human rights record and involvement in the widespread system of corruption. His might be a candidacy not unlike Ramazan Bashardost who, in the 2009 election, gathered an impressive 10.5 per cent of the vote on an anti-corruption and pro-poor ticket overlaid with populist tones. Bashardost has so far not declared himself this time.

If the ‘Pashtun technocrats’ fail to join hands with the ‘Karzai camp’ – because Karzai cannot drop Rassul after his most recent hints and at least one of the technocrats stays in the race – chances are the following three or four main candidates will be competing for victory: Rassul, Ghani, Dr Abdullah or Massud and possibly Atmar, Jalali and/or Ahady.


(1) With the new electoral law passed earlier this year, criteria for running for president have become considerably tougher: candidates now must provide 100,000 voter cards and fingerprints from at least 20 provinces, with at least 2 per cent from each province (up from just 10,000 in 2004) and file a deposit of one million Afghani (approximately 17,500 USD), up from 50,000 Afghani in 2004 and 250,000 Afghani in 2009. The deposit will be refunded only to those who receive at least 10 per cent of the votes; only three of the 32 candidates on the ballot in 2009 managed to achieve this (see our analysis of the law here).

(2) Ghani seemed to initially assume that he would be able to win Karzai’s endorsement for being ‘his’ candidate after the president appointed him chairman of the important Transition Coordination Commission in 2011. According to sources privy to the meeting, the group of ‘Pashtun technocrats’ visited Karzai after the EUA was established but the President declined to endorse anyone while Nematullah Shahrani, the minister of mines (who reportedly has lined up behind the president) told the group that Rassul was ‘their’ candidate. Qayyum Karzai and former Interim President Sebghatullah Mojaddedi are reportedly against Atmar and Ahady standing as candidates. Neither were active fighters against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and Atmar even worked for the Soviet-backed government.

(3) With the establishment of the EUA, the Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalitions of Afghanistan (CCPPCA) established alomost exactly a year ago has in effect ceased to exist. Its member-parties – more than 20, from both the presidential camp and the opposition – initially joined hands to push for transparent elections, a stronger role for political parties and “full impartiality” of the electoral bodies, the Independent Election Commission and the Independent Election Complaints Commission. At least on the two latter aims it has failed (an AAN analysis of the new IEC here). Also, those CCPPCA parties now in the EUA have attempted to turn the CCPPCA into a broad supra-ethnic anti-Karzai coalition. These attempts have obviously failed, too.

(4) With the former governors of Wardak and Helmand, Halim Fedayi and Gulab Mangal, former Deputy Minister of Education Sediq Patman, some MPs like Shinkai Karokhel, as well as some academics and tribal elders at its core, this jirga had met several times over the past two months, but never publicly.

(5) Sayyaf, instead, seems to be aiming at leading a new but still unnamed council to be composed, he said, of “ulama, jihadi commanders, tribal elders, intellectuals, politicians, activists of civil society and others” with the stated aim of “supporting the values and achievements of the jihad and the rights of the mujahedin and the jihadi and historical character of Afghanistan,” as Sayyaf proposes in a ‘covenant’ (misaq). This document has circulated as a draft among the country’s leaders at least since mid-2013 (in Dari here). Sayyaf also proposes that this unnamed council be given constitutional status. If implemented it would be dominated by the two groups mentioned first, the ulema and jihadi commanders; Sayyaf can claims both attributes. The body would have authorities not unlike the Council of Guardians in Iran that watches over the law-making process, making sure that no law is passed that contradicts Islam.

(6) Sardar Muhammad Nader Naim is the son of Sardar Muhammad Naim, the brother of the slain former president Sardar Muhammad Daud (1973-78). Daud and Naim (the elder) were cousins of the last king, Muhammad Zaher Shah; the latter was foreign minister when Daud was prime minister (1953-63) and chief foreign policy advisor when Daud was president.

(7) Farhad Darya, actually Farhad Nasher, was born and grew up in Kabul, but originates from a Pashtun family in Kunduz that was instrumental in establishing one of the country’s most successful industrial enterprises, the Spinzar cotton manufacturing company. He left Afghanistan for exile in Europe and later the US in 1989, returned for a series of peace concerts in 2009 and 2010 (here and here) and has been appointed goodwill and peace ambassador for Afghanistan to the United Nations by the current government.


Attachment 1:

Existing and potential electoral alliances


  • the ‘Karzai network’ (the Karzai family and local allies in “Greater Kandahar”)
  • some remnants of Hezb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (Khales) and the 1992–96 Eastern Shura (Din Muhammad, former governor of Nangrahar and Kabul and head of the 2009 Karzai electoral campaign, and others)


  • Hezb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (led by Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, minister of economy)
  • Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami (Abdul Karim Khalili, second vice president)**
  • National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani)
  • Afghanistan National Liberation Front (Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, former interim president and senate chairman)
  • Hezb-e Ensejam-e Melli (Najibullah Sadeq Modaber, head of the Office for Administrative Affairs)
  • Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami (faction led by Musa Hotak) – and a break-away faction, Hezb-e Saadat-e Melli wa Islami (led by Maulawi Muhammad Osman Salekzada)
  • ‘election delayers’: several groups of MPs, tribal leaders, shuras and youth groups that campaign for a delay of the election perceived to be in the president’s camp mainly (see here, here or here)


Electoral Union (sometimes “Alliance”) of Afghanistan (EUA)

       o   National Front of Afghanistan (Zia Massud, also deputy leader of Jamiat)

                    § Jamiat-e Islami (Salahuddin Rabbani; also belong First Vice President Qasim Fahim, Minister for Water and Power Ismail Khan and Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur) (here and here)

                    § Jombesh-e Melli Islami (Abdul Rashid Dostum)

                    § Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan (Muhammad Mohaqqeq)**

      o   National Coalition of Afghanistan

                    §  Dr Abdullah’s party (formerly “Hope and Change”)***

                    §  Hezb-e Afghanistan-e Newin (Yunos Qanuni)***

                    §  Nohzat-e Melli (Ahmad Wali Massud)***

                    §  Hezb-e Muttahed-e Melli (Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi, former PDPA general)

                    §  Hezb-e Eqtedar-e Melli (Sayed Ali Kazemi, brother of slain MP and former commerce minister Mustafa Kazemi)

                    §  National Unity Movement of Afghanistan (Humayun Asef, brother-in-law of ex-king)

                    §  Hezb-e Mardom-e Muslimin (Hafiz Mansur, MP)***

                    §  Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Melli (Muhammad Akbari)**

                    §  Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Millat-e Afghanistan (Qurban Ali Urfani)**

                    §  Jabha-ye Salah wa Falah-e-Afghanistan (Ahmad Shah Zadran, this seems to be a party coalition itself)

       o   Green Trend (Amrullah Saleh, ex-NDS chief)***

       o   Council of the Arab Tribes of Afghanistan (Mulla Ezzat, MP)

       o   smaller, otherwise unaffiliated parties

                     §  Hezb-e Haqiqat (Shah Wali Karimzai, not clear whether NCA or only EUA member)

The “Eastern Alliance” (Gul Agha Sherzai, Mir Wais Yasini, senate chairman Fazl Hadi Muslimyar and others)



(still undecided but trending towards the Karzai camp)

The so-called “doctors without borders” (high-profile individuals, no party affiliation)

  • Ashraf Ghani (head of the Transition Board, reportedly supported by some small democratic and ex-leftist groups)
  • Ali Ahmad Jalali, former minister of interior
  • Omar Zakhilwal, minister of finance
  • Faruq Wardak, minister of education
  • Zalmai Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan and the UN
  • Qayum Karzai, a brother of the President and former MP
  • Jailani Popal, former head of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (seems to be in the presidential camp already)

Rights and Justice Party (Hanif Atmar)

Afghan Millat  (led by Stana Gul Sherzad; former leader Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady, minister of commerce) 

Association of National Amity of Afghanistan (also: Association of National Compromise of Afghanistan, led by MP Ishaq Gailani)***

  • National Solidarity Movement (his own party)
  • Hezb-e Resalat-e Mardomi Afghanistan (led by Noor Agha)
  • Hezb-e Afghanistani Wahed (Wasel Rahimi)
  • Hezb-e Arman-e Mardom-e Afghanistan
  • Hezb-e Azadi wa Masawat-e Afghanistan
  • Hezb-e Democracy Afghanistan
  • Hezb-e Jumbish-e Democracy Afghanistan
  • Hezb-e Adalat wa Refa
  • Hezb-e Harakat-e Melli Islami Afghanistan
  • Hezb-e Nahzat-e Hakemyat-e Mardomi Afghanistan

Attachment 2:

Politicians reported to have picked up registration packages for 2014 presidential election (source)

  • Dr Abdullah
  • Ahmad Zia Massud
  • Ashraf Ghani
  • Rahim Wardak
  • Muhammad Mohaqqeq
  • Hanif Atmar
  • Nur-ul-Haq Ahady
  • Gul Agha Sherzai
  • Hakim Nurzai, former leftist, than supporter of the king; after 2001 deputy head of NDS, now presidential advisor
  • Daud Sultanzoy, a former MP and presenter of his own talk show on Tolo TV
  • Sardar Nader Naim
  • Yunos Fokkur, a former leftist and political commentator from Zabul
  • Khadija Ghaznawi, only female candidate known so far
  • Sarwar Ahmadzai, businessman, lives in the US, ran in 2009 election (0.31 per cent of the vote)
  • Eng Abdullah Kandaharai, a locally well-known astrologist from Kandahar
  • Del Agha Kohdamani (from Ishaq Gailani’s Solidarity Movement)
  • Muhammad Yunos Wyar
  • “and a number of others”

* Quotation marks are used because ‘Karzai camp’ is not the official but the author’s term and major figures of the “opposition” hold key government positions. Karzai or his supporters never created a party or even movement, not least because of the President’s general dislike of parties. There were a few attempts to do it anyway: in 2004, led by his then chief-of-staff Zalmai Hewadmal as National Assembly (Majma-ye Melli) was created and loosely included some minor parties and civil society groups; in 2007, the head of Ariana airline and 1960s democracy activist Zabihullah Ismatai set up the Republic Party (Hezb-e Jamhuri) as a potential pro-Karzai party but it faltered after Ismatai’s sudden death (the same is said about Hezb-e Ensejam-e Melli, see list above), and in May 2013 there were reports that the President’s brother Mahmud was to set up a pro-Karzai movement, called De Woles de Mlatar Bahir (People’s Support Caravan; see here).

** These four parties were originally part of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Melli.

*** These parties have left Jamiat-e Islami but maintain close links to the ‘mother party’.

**** The parties in italics are not registered.


alliances application Candidates opposition Political Parties Presidential election registration