Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hope Springs Eternal in Kabul: The 2014 Afghan Elections

On the 30th of October, 2013, the Afghan Election Commission announced that the next presidential election would be held on the 5th of April, 2014. (BBC News) 

Five days ago, Afghans headed to the polls to elect a successor to Hamid Karzai, the American-supported president who was elected in 2004 and again in 2009. 

But there is reason to hope for this troubled nation. President Karzai declared that he would not try to run for a third term, and he kept his promise. This will be the first time that Afghans will see power democratically transferred on a national scale, and it looks like that transfer has gone cleanly so far. "So far, none of the leading candidates have said they would dispute this year's balloting - though results have not yet been announced - and each of the leading candidates has praised the election as relatively clean." (Foreign Policy Magazine) Afghanis on social media outlets have praised their police forces in keeping Taliban fighters from being able to carry out the major attacks they spoke of on the 5th. 

Of course, this isn't the end game. Results have not yet come out, and " Zalmai Rassoul is the only one of the major candidates who has made a clear promise to accept whatever results the election commission announces.  Both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani said they submitted reports of fraud to the commission, and Ghani posted on his Twitter account that "there are reports of serious fraud in several locations but all is documented." Neither Ghani nor Abdullah have committed to accepting the official outcome.  Preliminarily results are due April 24." (Foreign Policy Magazine) 

Still, progress has been made. There was a 48-hour window in both the 2009 and 2014 elections to file complaints regarding fraud or corruption. In 2009, the National Democratic Institute claimed there were 2842 complaints. This time around, there were 1573. That's a considerable number but it is considerably smaller than that of 2009, and 2009's election was widely criticized for its low turnout, around 38%. This problem did not occur in 2014's elections, where nearly 58% of Afghans went out to vote. Also, many of the complaints were "lodged against one or another of the eight presidential candidates or their campaigns." (New York Times)

Afghanistan had eight presidential candidates in this election, of which three were considered serious contenders. The five other candidates running, however, will make a runoff likely. If a runoff happens, it will probably be sometime in May. 

Meet the Major Candidates

Abdullah Abdullah

He ran in the 2009 election and won 30.5% of the vote, then quit the election because of the widespread problems in the election. He then set up the Coalition for Change and Hope, a coalition of political parties that is now called the National Coalition of Afghanistan. He is ethnically Pashtun and Tajik. His party is currently the primary opposition party in Afghanistan against President Karzai. In an interview with National Public Radio, he has said of the Taliban:
My view is very clear. There are groups that will fight to the death. Whether we like to talk to them or we don't like to talk to them, they will continue to fight. So, for them, I don't think that we have a way forward with talks or negotiations or contacts or anything as such. Then we have to be prepared to tackle and deal with them militarily."

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

The former Finance Minister, Ahmadzai has lived in the United States and worked at the World Bank. From the Financial Times: 
"He’s not without ego, but he hasn’t killed anybody, he hasn’t stolen money – and he’s precise,” says one foreign government official who has known Mr Ghani for years. “In many ways, he’s what this country needs.”" (Financial Times)

Ahmadzai lived outside Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and the Taliban's rule, which could have hurt him in polling, but his supporters believe that his campaign was very successful, as he traveled extensively within Afghanistan between 2009 and 2014. He wears traditional clothing, but he also is well-versed in the ways of the world. 

His running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is a wild card. Dostum is an Uzbek who was involved in violent massacres of Taliban during the American invasion, but Ahmadzai stands behind him, claiming: 

"“We acknowledge the problem of transitional justice,” he says. “General Dostum is the only one who has apologised. Every single rally he has supported the reform programme.” (FT)

Zalmai Rassoul

Rassoul was Foreign Minister from 2010-2013, and National Security Advisor before that. 
He has a medical background, and speaks Pashto, Dari, Farsi, English, French, Italian, and decent Arabic. This is important, as Afghans are often divided on ethnic lines. The CIA World Factbook describes the ethnic breakdown of Afghanistan as follows: "Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4%" It has two official languages at the national level, but Uzbek and Turkmen are official languages at the regional level, and there are around 30 minor languages spoken around the country. If there is a runoff, it's possible the Pashtuns who voted for Rassoul in the first round may be more drawn to Ahmadzai, who is Pashtun, rather than the part-Tajik Abdullah.

Afghanistan has a long way to go. It is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Frequent conflict has rendered it close to the bottom of the Human Development Index. It's a young country-the median age is 18. Its literacy rate is 43% for men and 12% for women. But this election, assuming it is resolved without snag, is a first step in the long journey Afghanistan seems to be taking towards forging a democratic republic.  

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