Political Landscape

The Big Maybe: First presidential candidates position themselves


Less than a month before the registration of candidates for the 2014 presidential election opens on 16 September this year, a number of prominent Afghan politicians have positioned themselves as potential candidates. Others are just now making their presence known in public appearances. Several political party councils and opposition alliances still struggle to find a joint front runner, while the incumbent appears not to have chosen his favoured successor either – although reports about his possible support for jihadi leader Sayyaf have created some ripples. AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig (with input by Gran Hewad and Fabrizio Foschini) presents the still-blurred field of contenders and takes a first look at ambitions and strategies of the men and women involved in the race for presidency.

On 16 September 2013, the registration of candidates for next year’s presidential election (and the provincial council elections) will open. In the run-up to this date, possible aspirants have sharpened their public profiles. They have used the month of Ramadan for some intense coalition building. A Reuters report describes the scene vividly:

“Gunmen-escorted convoys of armoured cars race around Kabul toward the end of the day as politicians and other leaders gather for the ritual breaking of the Ramadan fast at dusk – and also to set aside rivalries and form alliances which they hope can take them to power in the divided and war-torn nation.”

Most of the possible candidates for the 5 April 2014 poll, however, are still refraining from declaring themselves unambiguously. This in a situation where the incumbent, who cannot run again after his two constitutional terms in office, has not stated who will be his favoured successor and the broad Coordination Council of Political Parties and Coalitions of Afghanistan (CCPPCA) – founded in September 2012 by 20 member-parties, including both pro-government and opposition groups, and now grown to 23 (read more here) – and various opposition alliances have not been able to find a joint frontrunner. It is also unclear yet whether attempts to identify a “compromise candidate” – who could bridge the gap between the President’s supporters and the opposition to prevent another polarised run for the highest office – will be successful (read our analysis of this process here and here). It looks as if concrete names will only be known at five minutes before 12 o’clock.

Consulting about candidates

Media reports about the outcome of the heavy Ramadan and post-Ramadan traffic (maybe not very accurate in all cases) as well as public statements from the presidential camp and the CCPPCA have further blurred the picture. On 14 August, the Afghan news agency Pajhwok presented as a fait accompli: “Karzai to support [Abdul Rabb Rassul] Sayyaf as presidential candidate”. Quoting Sayed Fazl Sancharaki, the spokesman of the National Coalition of Afghanistan (NCA) led by Dr Abdullah, a member of CCPPCA, it reported a meeting “with political party leaders, including opposition, and former jihadi leaders” in the presidential palace “last week” (apparently on 6 August), during which the President, in Sayyaf’s presence, had urged the participants to throw their weight behind the jihadi leader and current MP. Sancharaki said that First Vice-President Qasim Fahim, Balkh Governor Atta Muhammad Nur and Water and Energy Minister Ismail Khan (and obviously his party’s leader) were among the participants; those named, although belonging to the opposition Jamiat-e Islami party, are all in government positions that demand some loyalty to the President at the same time. According to Sancharaki, only Atta declined to support Sayyaf.

At an earlier opportunity, Atta had already expressed his “natural” closeness with Abdullah, who aspires to become the opposition candidate, and said that “our circle” would take a decision about who should be their candidate with the “salvation of the crisis-ridden country” as their criteria. It appears that, if Abdullah supported Sayyaf, Atta would go along. According to sources who talked to AAN after the original meeting, he objected to Sayyaf, though.

On 15 August, Pajhwok reported another “consultative meeting” at the palace “last night” during which the candidacy of Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassul was discussed. This sounded less sure than the previous report. The presidential spokesman underlined that although “the president had started consultations and advisory meetings with political and jihadi leaders on the country’s political future, the upcoming elections and other issues of national interest”, he is “not backing any particular candidate”. Muhammad Daud Kalakani, an MP and another leading member of Sayyaf’s Dawat-e Islami party,(1) took the same line. He confirmed the 6 August meeting had indeed taken place, but denied that Sayyaf was already the candidate. Sayyaf, he added, still wanted to “forge a national consensus ahead of the elections” and had convened a large, two-week long gathering to be held in Kabul (the date is not clear yet). This, in fact, falls short of a denial that Sayyaf will run.

The two reported meetings convened by the President had been preceded by a meeting of several leaders linked to Jamiat, including Ismail Khan, Dr Abdullah, former Parliament speaker and 2004 presidential candidate Yunos Qanuni and others, at the residence of Vice President Qasim Fahim almost a month earlier. The report about this meeting claims that they had “nominated [Sayyaf] as [their] presidential candidate” at the proposal of Ismail Khan and supported by Fahim.

If the report that the earlier Jamiati meeting participants agreed to support Sayyaf is true, this step could also be read as Fahim’s reaction to his perception that the President is trying to sideline him. Karzai had supported Salahuddin Rabbani as the new leader of the Jamiat party, despite Fahim’s disagreement, and recently removed the pro-Fahim governor of Takhar (read our reports here and here), a province Fahim sees as one of his main constituencies. When he supported Sayyaf as the candidate through his own Jamiati team, he might have been trying to regain the initiative from Karzai whom he does not consider as a jihadi leader like himself. (Fahim fought in the “jihad” against the Soviets as the deputy of the famous Ahmad Shah Massud while Karzai spent most of that time in exile.) This does not mean, however, that Karzai cannot support Sayyaf as well.

It also would means that a reported attempt by Governor Atta came too late to persuade the main groups in the Jamiat camp – the party itself, the National Front and the National Coalition (background on these two formations here and here) – to agree on one candidate, but rather Dr Abdullah and not Sayyaf, before going to other parties. This reportedly happened before the meetings in the palace.

A name with some weight

Sayyaf himself has so far refrained from commenting on the issue publicly and even declined to be interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. But the appearance of his name created a lot of ripples. The Wall Street Journal started its article about this development with the following explosive sentence: “President Hamid Karzai has suggested that the man who brought Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan could become the country’s next leader”. It continued by pointing out that Sayyaf’s party ran “training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan that were initially set up for anti-Soviet mujahedeen fighters [that] eventually attracted thousands of Arab and international jihadis”. The article also emphasised that the US government-appointed 9/11 commission report described Mr Sayyaf as the “mentor” of Khalid Shaikh Muhammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who is currently incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba”. The article does not mention, though, the strong allegations of human rights violations against him documented in a number of reports (see here or here). Particularly his role in the massacre in the mainly Hazara-inhabited Kabul suburb Afshar in February 1993 will not win him many votes with this ethnic group, even if some of its political leaders – who are allied with President Karzai, like Second Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili – could be forced to support him to keep their positions in government.

The Wall Street Journal article continued, saying that Sayyaf has emerged to Western diplomats as an “unsettling favourite” and that “a position of power, let alone the presidency, for someone like Mr Sayyaf would imperil the billions of dollars in international commitments to the country”.

Sayyaf, however, is already in a position of power, although he failed to obtain the speakership of the parliament’s lower house in 2005 and 2010 (see our reporting here and here) and refrained from taking over other official positions. Apart from his seat in parliament, he has kept a low public profile, particularly during the second tenure. He attended only a few parliamentary sessions, fearing he would be targeted by the Taleban’s assassination campaign that already had cost several high-profile leaders their lives, including one of the President’s brothers. He prefers to work and exert his influence out of the limelight. Doing so, he became one of the key influences on the President over the years – one of the few key jihadi leaders invited to the palace to debate crucial issues (read for example here and here).

A savvy politician, said to have harboured aspirations for the Supreme Court’s top post in the past, the al-Azhar-educated Islamic scholar (‘alem) spectacularly took the stage at critical points only in the post-2001 political process. During the June 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga, together with Kandahari Shia leader Asef Mohseni, he forced the participants to agree, by rising from their chairs, to add the term “Islamic” to the Afghan Interim Administration that was envisaged by the Bonn agreement. During the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga, he managed to swear the assembly’s wafer-thin Pashtun majority in on unconditional unity to break the attempt by most non-Pashtun delegates to push through a parliamentary rather than a presidential system; this had led to a days-long boycott of the gathering by the non-Pashtuns. In 2007, he was one of the driving forces behind parliament’s so-called amnesty law(2) that provided impunity to war criminals of all factions (see our analysis here and media reporting related Sayyaf statements here). With his good English and his humorous style of speech (and, reportedly, the excellent breakfasts in his house), Sayyaf has been able to charm many Kabul-based diplomats.

Speculations are now floating through Kabul that Sayyaf’s name had only been brought up to clear the field for someone who, although not particularly popular, might be acceptable in comparison. Spokesman Sancharaki told Mandegar, a Kabul-based daily on 20 August, that Sayyaf’s alleged candidacy was an “electoral tactic” by the President to create conflict “among the parties related to mujahedin”. This might well be the case. The President has successfully done so in the past, in the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections when he made Jamiati leaders Ahmad Zia Massud and Fahim his respective first vice presidents, thus splitting off votes from the opposition candidates, Qanuni in 2004 and Abdullah in 2009, who officially all belong to the same “opposition” party, Jamiat. Karzai continued with his appointment of Jamiat leader Burhanuddin Rabbani to the top of the High Peace Council, followed, after his assassination in September 2011, by Rabbani’s son Salahuddin (read our analysis here, here and here). In a continuation of this approach, Karzai now wants to see Salahuddin Rabbani as a vice president of a candidate he supports.

Running so far – or almost

So far, there are only two unequivocally self-declared presidential candidates for the 5 April 2014 poll: female MP Fawzia Kufi and Nader Na’im, son to a cousin of King Zaher Shah and a nephew of former president Sardar Muhammad Daud who was murdered in a coup d’état in 1973 (see here and here). Both will have only slim chances. Other would-be candidates have been less clear.

The first whose name came up was presidential brother Qayyum Karzai, a former MP. On 3 June 2012, the New York Times wrote that he was “mulling” a candidacy; this was promptly followed by his denial in the Baltimore Sun’s entertainment section (QK is a restaurant owner in this city; here). He was quoted as saying: “What makes Jim Risen [the author of the article] say that I’m mulling. My decision depends on truly whether I can help, but running for president for the sake of being elected is nonsense in America or Afghanistan. I’m not a politician.” This statement, however, did not clarify anything. It also did not hinder his brother Mahmud, from talking to two media outlets in Kabul later in the same month to “confirm” that his older brother “was preparing to contest the next Afghan presidential election” (again, an indirect quote that leaves much open to interpretation, here and here).

More clearly, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Daudzai, let it be known from his newly established campaign office in Kabul that he was “likely” to run. According to the office coordinator, however, he had not yet launched a formal campaign and was still consulting supporters. He deemed it necessary, though, to reject “rumours about Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul’s nomination by the government”. Daudzai had long been traded as the, or at least one of the, President’s favourite candidates. His unilateral step into the public, however, seems to indicate that he has neither the Palace’s confirmation nor that of Hezb-e Islami, the party he is usually associated with.(3)

In a rather unusual way, Azizullah Ludin, the head of the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, stated in July already that he had been asked by Afghan intellectuals to run. He made his candidacy dependent on financial support by Afghans living abroad, explaining that “in the absence of my salary, I swear I can’t [even] pay rent of my house in Kabul”. Ludin, who is from Herat, and who lived abroad during the Taleban regime and was a member of the Cyprus Group,(4) has often criticised the President for not reacting to his office’s proposals to crack down on corruption. Ludin himself had also been accused of corruption.

Another prominent Afghan politician who has frequently been mentioned as a possible contender, former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, made a public appearance in Kabul on the eve of Independence Day on 18 August. He did not, however, refer to his candidacy at that occasion (amendment on 21 August) that he had announced in April 2012 already, qualifying it, however, with the demand for “an honest team … to run national affairs” . Jalali, who is from Ghazni, has been living in the US for most of the post-2001 period. In 2009 already, he was traded as a possible candidate and one of the few that could challenge Karzai, with his appeal among Pashtuns,(5) but then decided not to run shortly before the election. Currently, he is also often mentioned as part of a group of “Pashtun technocrats” that plan to run as a team next April. Besides Jalali, the group “appear[s] to include former American Ambassador to Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the transition process and former presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, the president’s brother Qayyum Karzai, current Minister of Finance Omar Zakhilwal and current Minister of Education Faruq Wardak” (see earlier AAN analysis here). They have agreed among themselves that none of them will put himself forward as a candidate until the consensus settles on who it should be, although Ghani seems to be the frontrunner among them. They also hope for Karzai’s blessing. The head of Khalilzad’s Kabul office stated that the Afghan American, too, would be ready to step in as the consensus candidate if no-one else was found for that role.

An opposition dragged to many sides

On the opposition side, Ahmad Zia Massud, one of the leaders of the opposition National Front of Afghanistan (NFA), came out with the news that the CCPPCA had, over Ramadan, reached “a decision on forming a single coalition party that will nominate a candidate for the upcoming election”. This news has been widely understood to mean that that opposition will present a single candidate. According to Massud, the coalition would be officially announced “within the next ten days” and would include Jamiat led by Salahuddin Rabbani, Hezb-e-Islami of Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, the National Coalition of Dr Abdullah, the three-party NFA (it includes Dostum’s Jombesh-e Milli, Mohaqqeq’s wing of the Hezb-e Wahdat and Massud’s own wing of Jamiat, more details here) and the Green Trend movement of Amrullah Saleh, former head of the Afghan intelligence service. Massud added that talks were also in progress with the Rights and Justice Party (RJP) led by former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Afghan Millat, a party that had been led by Commerce Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi (another hopeful) until he left his party’s leadership for his cabinet position.(6)

A joint statement on 16 August by Hezb-e Islami and Hezb-e Wahdat showed how shaky the unity was that Massud claimed to exist. On the surface, both parties echoed what Massud and the CCPPCA – of which both are members – had said. They stated that they “agreed to have a unified team in the upcoming elections [and] to nominate one candidate together” but that they did not have a name yet. But the Wahdat spokesman added that his party was also negotiating with President Karzai “over the formation of a successful strategy for the elections”. This shows that at least some CCPPCA member-parties are keeping all their options open. Others who do so are Pir Gailani’s National Islamic Front and Afghan Millat who maintain their links to the – rather undefined – Karzai camp.

The NFA’s three member parties and Saleh’s Green Trend have meanwhile met for a conference in the German city of Munich on 17 and 18 August and discussed elections, reconciliation, “parliamentary democracy as an alternative to the current presidential system [and] decentralization of power as an alternative to the current unitary system” (see here and here). This meeting seems to indicate that Saleh’s group is moving closer to this broader alliance, while others keep some distance. RJP leader Atmar, who had been invited (later it was said he might address the meeting via video conference) did not appear. Dr Abdullah did not figure in the conference at all.(7)

Some of the NFA parties may end up on Karzai’s side again, as in the 2009 election (particularly Dostum’s Jombesh and Mohaqqeq’s Wahdat faction have a history of switching sides); the accusation that the President was trying to sow discord among the mujahedin parties (as already quoted) might represent the fear of Dr Abdullah’s NCA of ending up isolated in opposition. When speaking to the Wall Street Journal after Sayyaf’s name came up, Abdullah commended Sayyaf for his anti-Taleban stance in the 13 post-Taleban years – this may be a sign to keep the door open for a last-moment move to this side.

In the weeks leading up to 16 September, we will still be confronted with a blurred field of declared and possible contenders and, likely, more confusing moves by key actors. Clarity will only set in when the registration period is over on 6 October 2013. But even after that, the last word is not spoken. Candidates might still drop out during the campaign period, up to election-day, calling their supporters to vote for someone else and hoping for a reward in exchange. In the 2009 election, one (fringe) contender did drop out so late that his name remained on the ballot papers that already had been printed and he still received more than 2,000 votes (see here and here).

(1) Originally called Ittehad-e Islami bara-ye Azadi-ye Afghanistan (Islamic Union for the Freedom of Afghanistan), it started as a “front” to unite the, till then, six Pakistan-based Sunni mujahedin groups (tanzims) that fought the Soviet troops occupying the country. Sayyaf, who had been arrested under the Daud government in the mid-1970s but was released by communist head of state Hafizullah Amin (who belonged to the same Pashtun tribe, the Kharroti, and was born in Paghman near Kabul like Sayyaf), was then teaching in Saudi Arabia. There he had become Wahhabi and was presented as a neutral figure among the six mujahedin leaders. He reportedly took over the front’s finances and turned it into his own organisation that further on received massive Saudi support. With Sayyaf’s new organisation, the Sunni tanzims’ “Peshawar Seven” was born.

(2) Officially titled the “National Reconciliation, General Amnesty and National Stability Law”.

(3) Daudzai had made highly ambiguous statements about his plans earlier already, telling a Pakistani newspaper in March, “I cannot say that I am a candidate. Also I cannot say that I am not a candidate. I need to further think and consult and then I will make a decision”.

(4) The Cyprus Group (named after a series of meetings held on the Mediterranean island under the title “Cyprus Meeting for Peace in Afghanistan”) was one of the four Afghan groups that participated in the 2001 international Afghanistan conference in Bonn and signed the so-called Bonn Agreement. Active throughout the later years of the 1990s, it was loosely structured and politically heterogeneous; some of its participants belonged to other political groups at the same time. In Bonn, it was headed by Humayun Jarir, the son-in-law of Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It included pro-Iranian members (the group was rumoured to be financed by Tehran), some with links to the Northern Alliance, monarchists and even left-wingers. Former interim president Prof Sebghatullah Mojaddedi and Pir Seyyed Ahmad Gailani also participated several times in Cyprus meetings. In Bonn, the group was represented by Jarir, Ludin and Dr Muhammad Jalil Shams, a former deputy foreign minister and minister of economy.

(5) This author witnessed a wave of support in Uruzgan and other parts of the south, in a situation where feelings of exasperation with the incumbent were widespread in the US and among many Afghans (read here and here).

(6) Afghan Millat (AM) had its own internal tussle in early August when discussing the presidential election. While the CCPPCA had earlier mentioned Ahadi – in addition to Atmar and Dr Abdullah – as one of its possible candidates, a historical AM leader, Muhammad Amin Wakman, also put his name in the ring, leading to some rowdy scenes.

(7) According to participants AAN talked to over the phone, the conference was attended by Saleh and Massud but not by Dostum and Mohaqqeq whose speeches were read out by representatives.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape