Political Landscape

Narrower Than Expected: Political opposition presents “Electoral Union of Afghanistan”


Today, 29 August 2013, a coalition of powerful groups and opposition parties, dominated by Northern powerbrokers, came forward and announced their “electoral union.” It could have been one of the first real political happenings in the wheeling and dealing before the presidential election of April 2014. Instead it was a surprisingly uninspired and chaotic event. The anticipated broad alliance turned out to be somewhat meagre and a joint candidate was not named, despite suggestions that this might have been the case. AAN’s Gran Hewad and Thomas Ruttig take a look at the latest move, which seems to signal that the competition next April could be rather polarised.

The press conference that was called by the union to announce the outcome of their various meetings was held in Khalij Hall, one of the wedding halls on Kabul’s airport road. It started late, even for Afghan standards, and was quite uneventful. Faizullah Zaki, the spokesperson of the National Front of Afghanistan led by Ahmad Zia Massud, read a prepared statement officially announcing the establishment of the “Electoral Union of Afghanistan” (Ettehad-e Entekhabatiy-e Afghanistan), flanked by a prominent selection of Northerners, the majority Jamiatis, including most of the sprinkling of participating Pashtuns.

The list of those invited to sit on the stage and to represent the alliance’s most powerful members, is long but worth reading: Piram Qul, the influential Uzbek Jamiati from Takhar; Amrullah Saleh, the leader of the Green Trend movement; Senator Muhammad Alam Ezedyar, Jamiati, from Panjshir and deputy speaker of the Senate; Kalimullah Naqibi, one of the few Pashtuns in the alliance, son of the late Mullah Naqib from Kandahar and recently selected as a deputy of Jamiat; Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi, a Pashtun from Kandahar and former member of the socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), currently leading a party of his own, the Hezb-e Muttahed-e Melli; Ahmad Zia Massud, former First Vice President, Tajik from Panjshir and another deputy leader of Jamiat; General Abdul Rashid Dostum from Jawzjan, the Uzbek leader of Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan; Salahuddin Rabbani, head of the High Peace Council, the acting leader of Jamiat; Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Nur, who is also secretary general of Jamiat; Ustad Muhammad Mohaqeq, influential Hazara and leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan; Dr Abdullah Abdullah, leader of the National Coalition; Yunus Qanuni, a Panjshiri, former speaker of the parliament and leader of Hezb-e Afghanistan-e Nawin; Shah Wali Karimzai, a Pashtun and leader of the new Haqiqat Gund (Truth Party); Sayed Ali Kazemi, an MP from Kabul, leader of the Hezb-e Eqtedar-e Melli and brother of the late Sayed Mustafa Kazemi; Mohammad Akbari, an MP from Kabul and a leader of the Hezb-e Wahdat-e Melli-ye Afghanistan, and Mullah Ezat from the Council of the Arab Tribes of Afghanistan.

Spokesman Zaki’s statement was disappointingly general, identifying the main goals of the Union as “national unity and the implementation of the National Plan ratified by the CCPPCA” (the  Coordination Council of Political Parties and Coalitions of Afghanistan, which is the original, broader alliance of political parties that fought for fair and transparent elections) – a document that has not been published yet. “We welcome any party that is keen to join us,” Zaki added. That was, basically, all – other than the somewhat hilarious interludes when Zaki interrupted himself to address the guests and organisers milling around on the stage (“leave the stage, I say it again, leave the stage, respect your leaders”) or apologising for having forgotten to name some members of the alliance, and then later apologising again for having forgotten to play the national anthem.

What was not presented – but promised for “later” – was the joint ticket: the one leader that Ahmad Zia Massud and others had announced would be chosen to lead this large joint section of the opposition. The event was over in 15 minutes.

Accusations and clashes

But not only the event on Thursday, also the recent past of this coalition seems chaotic. The “Electoral Union of Afghanistan” was supposed to be announced last Sunday. Officially, the delay was “due to technical reasons,” but it was probably caused by the criticism of prominent Pashtuns of the union. Zalmai Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former US ambassador to Kabul and rumoured to be a potential presidential candidate himself, accused the Union of contributing to the ethnicisation of the election by having too few Pashtuns in their ranks. At the last minute, the members seem to have tried to gauge the opposition they would face, inviting prominent Pashtun politicians for talks – such as Hanif Atmar, the former interior minister and one of the leaders of the Rights and Justice Party, as well as the group of Pashtun technocrats that Khalilzad belongs to. (The group does not have an official name, but because five out of the six are doctors, the group was nicknamed Doctors Sans Frontiers inside Afghanistan).

According to some Afghan media reports, one reason for the failure of the new alliance to include Pashtuns was a fallout during a first meeting in General Dostum’s house on Monday night (26 August) between Khalizad and Saleh. Some reports on social media say, a second meeting in Mohaqeq’s house, which was planned for yesterday 28 August with the same participants, ended without the Pashtuns turning up; other sources claim some of them still participated.

Everyone wants to be the leader

The first presentation of the “Electoral Union of Afghanistan” was not yet convincing, and the coalition turned out to be narrower than the original one, the CCPPCA, to which the participating parties had belonged and that had also had a joint candidate as one of its aims. It is probably also narrower than its main members had expected as the many delays of the announcement and attempts to win over more allies show. Now most of the CCPPCA’s original 23 member-parties have dropped out, including most importantly all parties (with the exception of Jamiat) that have a foot in the government’s camp, through posts in the cabinet or quasi-governmental bodies like the High Peace Council: Hezb-e Islami, Afghan Mellat, the Khalili faction of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami, Pir Gailani’s National Islamic Front and many others.

The CCPPCA had been an unusually heterogeneous gathering, with its array of opposition, half-opposition and pro-government parties. The crumbling of this coalition illustrates how the fear to lose access to power continues to trump the willingness to stand up for particular political aims. As a result, the attempts by Dr Abdullah’s National Coalition and some leaders of the National Front to turn it into a full-fledged and broad opposition alliance beyond the former “Northern Alliance” have so far failed. As has the attempt to forge a “consensus” for a joint candidate (see earlier AAN reporting here) between the presidential camp and the opposition – signified by the absence of the group of the so-called five “Pashtun technocrats” in today’s press conference. It will be interesting to see what the next step of this illustrious group will be. It is also notable that none of the small, side-lined but still existing pro-democratic parties has opted to join the alliance.

It remains to be seen what consequences the decision to join this new opposition alliance will have for HPC chairman Salahuddin Rabbani and Balkh governor Atta. Will President Karzai threaten to relieve them from their posts, as almost happened to Atta after his public 2009 support for opposition candidate Dr Abdullah? Atta has been a figure on which the Pashtun “technocrats” had pinned much hope and who is expected to play his cards well.

If the relatively narrow factional, geographic and ethnic basis of the only officially declared electoral coalition so far is a sign of things to come, Afghans may well be witnessing a real and probably rather polarised competition in next April’s presidential election. However, there is still a lot of time. On one hand, this coalition might win additional allies. On the other hand, more defections to the presidential camp can be expected, once the presidential tickets have been finalised, by mid-October, and the usual wheeling and dealing sets in, including expected offers from the pro-Karzai camp to lure key opposition players. Most politicians who make out the core group of this “Electoral Union” still see themselves as individual “leaders” with a utilitarian “you owe me your vote” attitude, rather than as representatives of a certain constituency. They are used to taking decisions without consulting their supporters, including on which side to join.

Today it is still far from clear whether this new coalition will be able to hold together and to implement its decision to field a single candidate. Finding the one name among many contenders, of whom not many would be happy with the role of a number 2 or 3, will be a real challenge. And even if they agree on a joint candidate, it is by no means certain it will really be an opposition candidate, as the path to a consensus candidate remains open, despite the recent fallout. As long as nobody has settled on a name the chance to bridge the gap between the Karzai camp and this coalition remains. But even when the candidates are clear, things may still shift – even until the eve of election day, given that candidates can still drop out in the last moment.

Last, but not least at all, a prerequisite for the coalition’s political strategy to work is that the 5 April 2014 election is conducted democratically, that is: that its result is decided by the votes cast, not by those who count and have the ability to manipulate the figures, or by those who can arrange for a massive number of votes to be stuffed into ballot boxes, as happened during the previous presidential and parliamentary elections.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape