Michael Keating
Michael Keating
Former Associate Director, Research Partnerships

The presidential elections in Afghanistan, now less than six months away, are triggering intense political manoeuvring in Kabul. The campaign will be bruising, and the elections flawed – but the outcome might just turn out to be better than the pessimists predict.

In a last minute rush just before the October 6 deadline, 27 individuals – an eclectic mixture of politicians, warlords, technocrats and rights campaigners – registered themselves, each with two running mates, for the Afghan presidency. One candidate and nine vice presidential aspirants are women. A final list of runners will be announced on November 16 once the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has confirmed their eligibility. 

The elections for a five-year term will mark the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history. The stakes are high. The president nominates ministers and Supreme Court judges, appoints governors, heads of the army, police, intelligence agencies as well as constitutional bodies, including the IEC. Checks and balances on presidential power are weak, reflecting both Afghanistan's youth as a parliamentary democracy and its patronage-driven political culture. 

Trusted associates

Conspiracy theorists have much to feed on. Many do not believe that the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, will relinquish power. But he has thus far proven wrong those who predicted that he would sidestep constitutional limits and serve a third term. Now he is suspected of plotting to ensure that a compliant candidate wins – having handpicked IEC members, removed the two slots reserved for internationals in the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) and appointed a close ally and his former chief of staff, Omar Daudzai, as interior minister.

No doubt Karzai needs a friendly successor. He may keep candidates guessing before endorsing one, if he ever does so – a good way to avoid lame duck status. They include his brother, Qayum; his foreign minister, Zalmay Rassoul; former minister of defence, Abdul Rahim Wardak; former minister of finance Ashraf Ghani; plus several ex-mujahedin commanders-turned politicians who believe they enjoy the president's support.

Challenging mandate

Karzai's own campaign is for his legacy. There have been many positive social and economic changes for which he can claim credit, but as he points out, insecurity continues. The number of civilians being killed and injured is going up, millions of people are displaced, access to justice is limited and corrupt practice has invaded every aspect of daily life. 

Karzai's recent remarks to the BBC, directed primarily at Afghans, are intended to put the responsibility and blame for this on international shoulders. He is burnishing his patriotic credentials, a reconciler seeking peace among all Afghans including the Taliban, and defender of national interests, not least when in negotiating the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US.

The elections will be marked by a number of problems. They include insecurity, notably if the Taliban prevent people from voting in areas where they are strongest, disadvantaging the Pashtoons relative to other ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks, thereby fuelling ethnic tensions; fraud, including use of invalid voter cards, or buying and selling of votes; and manipulation and intimidation of voters by local strongmen. But by far the most serious challenge will arise when, as in the 2009 presidential elections, the results are contested. The arbitration mechanism is neither robust nor seen as trustworthy by many political actors.

So plenty can go wrong. But there are some positive omens. Recent elections in Pakistan offer a hopeful precedent; while imperfect, they had clear results that were accepted as legitimate. Pakistan does not need more instability next door. The logistical, security and technical preparations for the Afghan elections are far from perfect, but more advanced than most predicted a year ago. The elections could be ethnically divisive but the most plausible candidates have chosen running mates from across ethnic divides. And the tumult of political horse-trading is evidence that elections now have a central role, albeit not the only one, in determining how power is transferred and shared. 

High expectations 

Afghanistan is witnessing the emergence of a culture of political campaigning, spurred by a riotously free media, unprecedented civil society activism, and by the millions of IT-savvy, increasingly urbanized young people. Their votes count, and may be influenced not just by the ethnicity, power or wealth of candidates but their expectations – of jobs and opportunities, rights including for women, education and basic services, and an end to corruption and access to justice. 

The role of the international community will be critical – both what it does and says, and what it doesn't. Western donors are paying for the elections, and most Afghans are convinced that they, particularly the US, can determine the outcome. 

Much is at stake for Afghanistan's western partners too – including a dividend from 12 years of blood and investment, and their politicians' willingness to honour financial commitments to Afghanistan, without which its chances of maintaining the security forces and meeting development goals will be limited. For some, the elections will be judged primarily by the degree to which they deliver stability; for others, the emphasis is on whether they are more free and fair than last time.

The UN and diplomatic community is still bruised by the experience of 2009 when it was divided in its response to the results and accused of interference. Distrust in government of international meddling lingers to this day. The approach is now more circumspect – too much so, some in civil society complain – studiously avoiding candidate favouritism, focusing on standards and procedures. A key issue is whether the international community is prepared for and will have a coherent response to a messy and contested result, and perceptions that the ECC and IEC are biased.

The elections will be a watershed moment in Afghanistan's evolution. If the results are disputed or viewed as illegitimate by the country's elite, of if an ethnic group feels disadvantaged, they may fuel insecurity. But there is a good chance that, despite the flaws, they will deliver a result that will move the country decisively forward.

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