April 4, 2014

TSG Intelbrief: Afghanistan’s Presidential Elections

• With international help, significant measures have been taken in the Afghan election process to reduce the fraud that marred the 2009 vote
• The three leading presidential candidates—Zalmay Rasoul, Ashraf Ghani, and Abdullah Abdullah—support the Bilateral Security Agreement, required by the US to maintain security assistance operations in Afghanistan after 2014
• The leading candidates appeal to different constituencies and have faced challenges in assembling the electoral majority needed to avoid a runoff election; the other candidates barely register in available opinion polls
• The presidential contenders and their vice presidential candidates all have positives but also some drawbacks within Afghanistan’s political milieu.  

Election Setting and Process

The Afghan political system is the final stages of preparation for the April 5 presidential and provincial elections. Under the Afghan system, the presidency is a powerful position with appointment authority at all levels of government. The presidential contest is therefore more closely watched than the concurrent elections for 420 total provincial council seats spanning Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The presidential field now consists of eight candidates, after three dropped out during the campaign. This presidential election is the first since the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime in which President Hamid Karzai is not a candidate.

The international community has a keen interest in an election process that is sufficiently legitimate to produce a smooth transfer of power to a new president. There is general optimism the goal will be accomplished and that the massive fraud of the 2009 presidential election will not be repeated. In that vote, an Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) invalidated 1.3 million of the nearly 6 million votes cast, with 1 million of those votes going to Karzai. For the 2014 contest, both the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which runs the election, and the ECC, which vets candidates and evaluates fraud complaints, have the authority of laws enacted by the Afghan Parliament—far more authority than that of Karzai’s election decrees. Both bodies now have investigative powers. International observer groups anticipate that there still will be a number of falsified votes, but that the IEC and ECC will be able to instill enough confidence in the election process to ensure that the result is accepted by the Afghan people—minus the Taliban and like elements opposed to any elections.  

The Taliban insurgency appears committed to suppressing turnout, in an effort to reduce the election’s legitimacy. In late March, the group claimed responsibility for two attacks on IEC locations in Kabul, including the organization’s main headquarters. The insurgency also attacked the Serena Hotel, where several international election observers were staying. The attacks caused several observer organizations, including the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe and the US-based National Democratic Institute, to cancel their election observation missions. However, the latest polling data indicates the attacks will not materially affect voting turnout or election results.


Major Candidates and Their Attributes      

There are three frontrunners among the eight presidential candidates, based on polling data as well as declarations of support from key faction and opinion leaders: former Foreign Minister Dr. Zalmay Rasoul, ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, and former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Both Rasoul and Ghani are ethnic Pashtuns. Rasoul is popular with the southern Durrani tribal confederation centered in Qandahar, whereas Ghani’s political base is among Ghilzai who dominate the eastern provinces of Paktia, Paktika, and Khost. Abdullah’s father was Pashtun but he is identified mainly as Tajik, from his mother’s ethnicity and his time as a top aide to legendary Tajik mujahidin leader Ahmad Shah Masoud. Abdullah is a leader of the opposition Northern Alliance that has criticized Karzai but also works with him to govern.

The three frontrunners emerged after the field narrowed from its original eleven candidates. Two prominent candidates—President Karzai’s brother Qayyum and ex-Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak—pulled out of the race, reportedly as part of Karzai’s effort to unify the Durrani Pashtun community around Rasoul. Karzai, from a leading Durrani family, seeks to use his wide local political network to help his close ally win and deny victory to longtime rivals Ghani and Abdullah. Karzai also fears an Abdullah presidency would bring Tajiks into key positions.

It is likely that two of the three will proceed to a runoff—required within one month if no candidate receives more than 50% of the first round votes. The three top candidates have all formed tactical alliances along ethnic lines: among Ghani’s two vice presidential picks is Uzbek community leader Abdul Rashid Dostum; one of Abdullah’s running mates is a Hazara, Muhammad Muhaqiq; and with Habiba Sarobi as one of Rasoul’s choices, she’s also Hazara and one of three female vice presidential candidates on the ballet.

The remaining candidates are polling in the low single digits and not given much chance to land either of the top two positions. Among those candidates is Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, a religious arch-conservative and one of the leading warlords in the fight against the Soviets. He is a frequent target of Afghan and international human rights groups for his opposition to increased rights for women, and the one candidate with whom the US would likely have major difficulty dealing with as president.

The three front runners have extensive—and relatively positive relations—with US officials. All three have said they would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which Karzai has refused to sign. (The US requires the agreement if it’s to keep an estimated 10,000 personnel in Afghanistan after the current international security mission concludes at the end of the year). Rasoul is considered a moderate, and his selection of a female VP candidate signals a strong step forward for Afghan women. However, Karzai would have substantial influence over a Rasoul presidency and could counsel distance between Afghanistan and the US. Due to his work on institutional reform and anti-corruption and his ties to the World Bank and other Western institutions, Ghani has received praise from US officials. However, Ghani’s running mate Dostum has a long record of human rights abuses and arbitrary rule in northwestern Afghanistan. Abdullah has also been a strong ally of the US. However, Pashtuns might resent a Tajik presidency. Moreover, Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan and prospects for a political settlement with the Taliban would likely deteriorate as he and his Northern Alliance cohorts have opposed a political settlement and blamed Pakistan for sponsoring Taliban attacks.    



• Election fraud will be significantly reduced as compared to the 2009 election, but not eliminated  

• The election will proceed to a runoff in mid-May as no candidate is likely to win more than the 50% vote needed for a first round victory

• No matter who is elected president, after his inauguration, the BSA will be signed and the US and NATO will firm up their plans for a post-2014 security mission consisting of about 15,000 total international troops.


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