The Afghan presidential election campaign has kicked off – two months before polling day. Candidates are showing a range of attitudes, from launching big, brash public rallies to a rather desultory ‘we start tomorrow’ attitude. With no evident frontrunner, it seems the campaign will involve a real attempt to win over voters and will be taken far more seriously than in previous elections, at least by the more heavyweight candidates. This morning also brought news of the first deaths of the campaign: Dr Abdullah’s campaign manager in Herat and another aide were assassinated. Kate Clark, Wazhma Samandary, Ehsan Qaane and Borhan Osman have been following the day’s events.
There was heavy rain and snowfall over much of Afghanistan today – welcome for farmers, gardeners and citizens everywhere in the middle of this extremely dry winter – but perhaps less so for campaigners. In Kabul, rain was blamed for the paucity of posters, and supporters gathering for those candidates having big first day launches were wet before they arrived. But despite the damp and cold, there is some excitement in the air. Unlike in previous elections, the incumbent, Hamed Karzai, will not be standing, which means the field is wide open. Going by experience, one has to expect ballot buying, ballot stuffing, ghost polling stations and fraud at the counting stage – as in previous elections (earlier AAN analysis here). Nevertheless, the tightness of the field means there is a pressing need for any serious candidate to work hard to persuade voters to support them. This also means, if we are lucky, we could see a real debating of issues important to Afghans.
So how have the eleven candidates(1) launched their campaigns?
Dr Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Gul Agha Sherzai all chose to have big meetings with speeches at Kabul wedding halls on the same stretch of road going towards the airport, while Qayyum Karzai had booked the loya jirga ‘tent’ at the Polytechnic, a venue also being used by Zalmai Rassul tomorrow (3 February 2014) for his launch. Amin Arsala had a press conference in his office, while Daud Sultanzoi decided to go to Herat. “I thought for a change, we should kick off the campaign from a province, rather than just roaming around in the capital,” he told AAN. “It’s a message to the people of the country that we don’t just concentrate on Kabul.” Sardar Nader Naim was out shaking hands and meeting the voters in an old district of Kabul – around Shah Du Shamshera mosque, then walking around Jada-ye Maiwand for three hours (see his FaceBook page here). An aide to Qutbuddin Helal told AAN “We are planning a meeting tomorrow somewhere in town to inaugurate the campaign and there will be other programs, but I cannot share them over the phone.” A member of Abdul Rab Rassul Sayyaf’s team said they had no rallies planned and had put up only a few posters in Kabul: “We have not had the sort of traditional rallies other candidates had, but we will soon have some programs to announce.” Sayyaf, a particular target for the Taleban, has appeared in public only rarely in recent years (see AAN reporting here) and this will affect his ability to get out and onto the stump – should he wish to do so. Unfortunately, AAN could get no news of Rahim Wardak’s campaign. (For more AAN information on the candidates, see here, here and here.)
Campaigning in the provinces
Local journalists told AAN there had been no posters and no rallies, only rain, in Kandahar and Khost, and only snow in Ghazni, Mazar-e Sharif, Samangan and Sar-e Pul. Heavy snow across the north will derail campaigning for a couple of weeks, reporters said. Even so it is interesting that Ustad Muhammad Atta, the governor of Balkh who is supporting Dr Abdullah, did not, at least, hold a symbolic gathering in Mazar city. Poor Jalalabad which has seen only clouds today also had no rallies and only a little postering for Ghani, Rassul and Sherzai, so maybe the weather was not entirely to blame for the slow start to provincial campaigning. Moreover, in Herat, despite 30 centimetres of snow, there were also four launches – from Daud Sultanzoi, for Abdul Rab Rassul Sayyaf at the home of his vice-presidential candidate, Ismail Khan, Ashraf Ghani whose rally drew many displaced Uzbeks who have settled around Herat (the Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum is one of his running mates), and the biggest for Abdullah – with many supporters out to mourn the loss of his Herat campaign manager and driver (according to one report a relative of late Ahmad Shah Massud) – both shot in the city last night. In Bamian, Ghani’s campaign was the only ‘show in town’. Supporters held a 2000-strong rally and put some posters up, despite sleet and snow.
What the candidates are saying
Ashraf Ghani (broadcast on Tolo TV). After some Atan dancing and a recitation of the Quran, Ghani spoke for more than an hour through a scratchy speaker system which made his and other voices somewhat screechy. He was flanked by his vice presidential candidates, the huge figure of Dostum and the far smaller Sarwar Danish (neither of whom spoke). His campaign, he said, would not be a campaign of “gold and force” – buying votes or forcing people to vote.
“Our country is not a poor country,” he told supporters, “but we have had a poverty of planning and good thinking on how to improve our economy.” He said he would solve the problems of unemployment and violence against women, and the problems faced by refugees (giving every Afghan a ten year passport), the displaced and disabled people. “The ulema must help us and feel their responsibility to stand against injustice and help their people,” he said. He also announced policies which will be welcomed by his Hazara and Uzbek supporters, as they concern ‘minority rights’. Every six months, there would be a report on how the constitution is being implemented and if reforms were needed. He said further he would hold a constitutional loya jirga towards the end of his presidency. Discrimination among provinces would also cease – they are currently split into those of first, second and third grade with resources decreasing accordingly. He said the Afghan National Army would be the sole, legitimate user of force in protecting the borders and he would form a council of the High Command of the Armed Forces to assess security every eight hours. Everyone, he said, should be able to rise by merit, a colonel could become a general, but that must be based on qualification – as it had been for General Dostum.
Ghani’s campaign also announced that three major political parties had pledged their support and confirmed by one of Ghani’s aides: Afghan Mellat, led by former minister Dr Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi (who was barred from standing by the IEC), Mahaz-e Melli led by the son of mujahedin factional leader, Pir Seyyed Ahmadi Gailani and Melli Nejat, led by another mujahedin leader, Sebghatullah Mujaddedi. They join Hezb-e Haq wa Adalat (Rights and Justice Party), led by former minister of the interior, Hanif Atmar, who announced its support a few days ago. Meanwhile, a break-away faction of Afghan Mellat had declared itself in favour of Dr Abdullah a few days ago.
Dr Abdullah has one of the more difficult bridges to make between his old mujahedin faction, Jamiat-e Islami, and that of his vice president, Muhammad Khan, a stalwart of Jamiat’s traditional, decades’ long rivals, Hezb-e Islami. Campaign posters appeared to be aimed at the ticket’s different constituencies, with Abdullah pictured with his two deputies, Muhammad Khan and Muhammad Mohaqqeq of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom. Abdullah’s old leader, Ahmad Shah Massud (killed by al-Qaida) and Mohaqqeq’s, Ali Abdul Mazari (killed by the Taleban) featured in the background of only some of the posters; because of memories of the war, they will not appeal across the board, attracting some voters strongly while driving other, otherwise interested voters away. The leader of Muhammad Khan’s old faction, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is currently on the insurgent side of the war does not appear. At Abdullah’s rally in Kabul, a scuffle also showed some possibly latent issues with the ticket: it was reported (by NPR, Wall Street Journal and others via Twitter) that some of the Hezbis took exception to a mixed, male-female, music group singing a patriotic song. Abdullah, however, looked like a man trying to appear presidential and rise above everything, benignly smiling or looking portentous or soulful.
In his speech (carried live on Kabul-based Noor TV), Abdullah spoke nicely about the rights of women (mentioning maternal health as well as women prisoners, addicts, beggars), and of helping the disabled and the importance of particularly supporting those disabled during the jihad. He said that not giving the mujahedin an active role was the reason for the insecurity in the country. He said he wanted better rule of law and reform in all fields and stronger international relations, adding a jab at the incumbent: “It is a wrong policy to spend half of the time scaring people about the international community and the other half scaring the international community about the people.” He thanked Afghanistan’s international supporters and said the signing of the BSA with the USA was “essential”.
There was also something like a warning from the man who came second in the 2009 presidential election and felt he had been cheated out of a second round. He said his team would accept the result of a transparent election, but not a fraudulent one. He also called on the two election commissions, the IEC and the IECC, to do their jobs honestly and not act in a way that would lay themselves open to criticism.
Qayyum Karzai speaking at a rally at the loya jirga ‘tent’ at Kabul Polytechnic and carried live on Tolo, gave a wooden performance – surprising given his brother’s charismatic style. He said people had a right to live in peace and the economy and security were the main duties of government with a change from dependence on foreign aid to an economy invested in by the national traders. Unemployment should be addressed, also injustice, and the education system improved. He said he wanted to “protect the achievements of the last twelve years”.
Gul Agha Sherzai
Sherzai’s rally, although not carried live, was reported on Pajhwok which reported him saying: “I have practically proved myself as a hero of peace and reconstruction.” Sherzai said he would defend the rights of women and youth and reopen schools which had been closed due to insecurity. He said he would reduce the number of ministers to 16 from the current 25 and governors would have complete authority in performing their tasks. He also said special courts would try high officials involved in administrative corruption and a special committee would investigate cases of prisoners held on dubious charges. He called on the president to sign the BSA as it was the desire of the Afghan people. Most excitingly for the media covering the event, he promised to establish factories and give plots of land and vehicles to teachers, journalists and religious scholars and to provide traders with facilities to flourish their businesses if elected as president.
The Wall Street Journal has Rahim Wardak on the records with a condemnation of the Herat killings.
The media and the campaign
Rules on media reporting in this campaign are strict: “The media shall equally, fairly and impartially broadcast and publish candidates’ platforms, comments and objectives” says article 5 of the Election Law. That may be a real challenge for the various privately owned stations (here a good overview of the media landscape). The Media Commission at the Independent Election Commission (IEC) will be monitoring and looks to be taking a collaborative approach to working with journalists and stations to try to ensure they remain neutral. The jury is, as yet, out on how well the media manages. Yet, it is already clear that it will be very important in this campaign (see our earlier reporting here), especially if candidates are serious about trying to persuade people to vote for them.
As well as several launches being carried live, Afghans, for the first time, will also get to see their presidential candidates debating on television and answering questions from voters: Tolo, 1TV and RTA (the government-run TV and radio), BBC radio & Online and Salam Watandar‘s network of FM stations will all carry debates this week. Shirazuddin Siddiqi, country director of the media NGO, BBC Media Action, which, with RTA, has been putting out the debating programme, Open Jirga, said the winning candidate in the 2014 Afghan presidential election will have to have a meaningful campaign:
Candidates have to take the campaign very, very seriously – because there’s no clear frontrunner. We will also see what issues are flagged up – what is important for the Afghan public and for Afghanistan. The media will make it easier for voters to see through the initial facades of the candidates… and assess who comes closest to their ideal candidate.
This is the ideal, of course, and hopefully Afghanistan will move towards this in the next two months of campaigning. In AAN’s next dispatch on the election, however, we will move from the national to the small scale and see another side to how people will make up their minds who to vote for. It is not all about thinking who might be the best next leader for Afghanistan. Guest author and former AAN researcher, Said Reza Kazemi, will give a compelling account of how people in one township in Herat are making tough choices on who to support: whether to aim for the short term benefits of getting free lunches or some money for working on a campaign or the longer term hope of being on the winning ticket and the longed-for access to employment, a passport or local development.
(1) The eleven candidates are:
Dr Abdullah, former foreign minister, Jamiat-e Islami main contester in the 2009 presidential elections
Abdul Rab Rassul Sayaf, leader of the Dawat Party (the former mujahedin faction Ittihad-e Islami), resigned as MP for Kabul to run
Qutbuddin Helal, spokesperson of Hezb-e Islami Hekmatyar during the 1990s and, more recently, member of the Hezb-e Islami peace delegation to Kabul
Abdul Rahim Wardak, former minister of defence, resigned as security adviser to the president to run
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former minister of finance and dean of Kabul University, resigned as head of the transition coordination commission to run
Zalmai Rassul, former head of the National Security Council, resigned as minister of foreign affairs to run
Qayyum Karzai, brother of current president, Hamed Karzai, and former MP
Gul Agha Sherzai, resigned as governor of Nangarhar province to run
Hedayat Amin Arsala, former senior minister
Sardar Mohammad Nader Naim, grandson of King Zaher Shah
Daud Sultanzoi, Tolo TV presenter and former MP from Ghazni and Ariana pilot.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020