Oct 10, 2013 | 10:51 GMT

6 mins read

Afghan Elections: A Political Maturation?


Afghanistan's 2014 presidential election may be the most critical event the country will have experienced since the United States toppled the Taliban and fabricated the current republic in 2001. The contest will determine who will succeed President Hamid Karzai, a name that has become synonymous with post-9/11 Afghanistan. And though more than two dozen former militia commanders, political figures and technocrats have declared their candidacy, only a few contenders are actually in position to win. Ultimately, the winner will have to have earned the backing of Karzai himself.

Most discussions over elections tend to focus on demographics, and in Afghanistan, discussions over demographics tend to focus on the country's fractious ethnic landscape. But no single group has a majority — Pashtuns represent 42 percent of the population, Tajiks 27 percent, Hazaras 10 percent and Uzbeks 9 percent — and much more important, all the groups are divided internally, so the election will be determined partly by how these various ethnic factions align with one another.

Afghan Ethnicities

Afghan Ethnicities

Because of their status as a plurality, Pashtuns naturally dominate the candidate field. One notable exception is former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who was the runner-up in the 2009 presidential election. Although Abdullah is partly Pashtun, many consider him Tajik because of his maternal lineage and due to his close ties to former anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. What complicates any Pashtun candidate's chances of winning is that he must gain the support of his own constituency as well as backing from the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks — the country's three principal minorities.

Presidential candidates know that they must choose their running mates wisely if they hope to earn the support of other ethnic groups. As a result, each of Afghanistan's top candidates has chosen vice presidents from at least two of the three minority communities. The tickets most likely to win are as follows:

  • Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul (Pashtun), with vice presidential nominees Ahmad Zia Massoud (Tajik) and Habiba Sarabi (Hazara) 
  • Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah (Tajik and Pashtun), with Mohammad Khan (Pashtun) and Mohammad Mohaqeq (Hazara)  
  • Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani (Pashtun), with Abdul Rashid Dostum (Uzbek) and Sarwar Danish (Hazara) 
  • Businessman and lawmaker Qayum Karzai (Pashtun), with Wahidullah Shahrani (Uzbek) and Ibrahim Qasemi (Hazara)  
  • Lawmaker Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf (Pashtun), with Ismail Khan (Tajik) and Abdul Wahab Erfan (Uzbek) 
  • Former Nangarhar Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai (Pashtun), with Sayed Hossain Alemi Balkhi (Hazara) and Mohammad Hashim Zare (Uzbek) 
  • Former Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak (Pashtun), with Shah Abdul Ahad Afzali (Tajik) and Sayed Hussain Anwari (Hazara)

The strongest Pashtun candidate appears to be Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, who previously served as national security adviser for eight years. A French-educated physician, Rassoul is well respected domestically and internationally, and he has earned the backing of prominent ethnic Tajik Ahmad Zia Massoud, the brother of slain Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Rassoul is widely regarded as Karzai's favored replacement. (Karzai reportedly wants Rassoul in office so he can rule from behind the scenes until becoming eligible for president again in 2019.)

Afghanistan's Top Presidential Contenders

Afghanistan's Top Presidential Contenders

Behind Rassoul is Abdullah. Given his support among the Tajik community, Abdullah will probably earn most of the Tajik vote, including the votes of prominent Tajik officials such as former Parliamentary Speaker and Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni; Balkh provincial Gov. Mohammed Atta Noor; Salahuddin Rabbani, the son of assassinated Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Afghanistan's top negotiator in talks with the Taliban; and Karzai's current first vice president, Mohammad Fahim.

Notably, Abdullah does not have much Uzbek support, and not many Pashtuns back him. He has thus had to reach out to former rivals in former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami party, which was Afghanistan's strongest Pashtun force until the emergence of the Taliban in 1994. However, Hizb-i-Islami is not what it used to be, and it can only offer so much help to Abdullah.

Another prominent candidate is former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, who has spent many years in the United States and has been close to Karzai. Ghani did not perform well in the 2009 election. He does not have a Tajik as a running mate, and his choice for second vice president, a Hazara, is relatively unimpressive. Though he has the support of Afghanistan's main Uzbek warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ghani's prospects nonetheless look grim.

The contender who has received a lot of media attention recently, given his notoriety, is Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, the leader of Ittehad-i-Islami, one of the most radical Islamist insurgent groups that fought the Soviets during the 1980s and participated in the Islamist civil war in the 1990s. Most observers focus on his close relations with Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but not enough attention is paid on the fact that Sayyaf has been a major radical Islamist who opposed the Taliban and actually joined the Northern Alliance. Since the current regime was founded, Sayyaf has sided with the United States and has been a close associate of Karzai. Interestingly, his nominee for first vice president is Ismail Khan, a Tajik from the Herat region, while the nominee for second vice president is a Hazara who is a fairly minor player.

Hamid Karzai's brother, Qayyum, is also a candidate, but the president has not endorsed him, and Qayyum's running mates are not key figures in their respective communities. Likewise, candidates Abdul Rahim Wardak and Gul Agha Shirzai do not have any prominent personalities in their camps. 

Karzai's Blessing

Ultimately, the race will be decided between Abdullah and Rassoul. Most of the other candidates have joined the race as part of strategies to protect their interests and extract concessions from the next administration. They will likely step down in favor of the top contenders as the election nears. Stratfor has been told that Sayyaf certainly will do so. The candidate with the best combination of Pashtun and Tajik support — not to mention support from Karzai — will become president.

The Afghan political elite is composed of leaders of groups that fought against the communists in the 1980s and against the Taliban in the 1990s. Notably, the fact that all candidates are building inter-ethnic alliances shows that they are starting to share power. It also shows that the Afghan political system, despite its many weaknesses, is in the early stages of maturation.

All these various stakeholders disagree with one another on many issues, but the fear that the Taliban may take advantage of the political transition and the NATO withdrawal unites them. Nonetheless, while the anti-Taliban factions are beginning to show an ability to manage their differences in mainstream politics, the critical issue remains whether they can negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban.

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