Thursday, 27 March 2014

A presidential election in Afghanistan: Runners and riders

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Afghans have quickly got the habit

LIKE teenage girls giddy about a boy band, a swarm of flag-carrying young men surged towards the elevated stage, set against the green hills of Afghanistan’s northern province of Kunduz. The youths’ idol sat on a sofa chewing gum. Between them and him was a waterless ditch, 12 feet (four metres) deep, carved out of the sandy soil. By the end of the campaign rally, the idol’s surging mass of admirers had pushed quite a few of their number into the ditch, from where they could be pulled out only with the help of their flagpoles.

Welcome to Afghanistan’s idiosyncratic campaign for the presidential election. As it happens, the 15,000-strong crowd had come not to cheer the presidential candidate, Ashraf Ghani, a former technocrat, intellectual and World Bank official whom many had never heard of. Rather, their adoration was for his running mate, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. He is an ethnic Uzbek, a former brutal warlord who during Afghanistan’s long civil war frequently shifted sides but who was instrumental in the Taliban’s downfall in 2001. In the north of the country, General Dostum commands huge loyalty. And in a country where polling is a most inexact science, the size of such rallies is one of the few pointers for the outcome of the election. The first round of voting takes place on April 5th.

Mr Ghani is reckoned to be one of three presidential front-runners. He and the warlord make unlikely bedfellows. On election day five years ago, Mr Ghani described General Dostum as a “known killer”. But Mr Ghani is nothing if not pragmatic, and with General Dostum come hundreds of thousands of Uzbek votes.

Mr Ghani himself is a Pushtun, the largest ethnic group, which dominates in the south and east of the multi-ethnic country. There educated people might balk at voting for a ticket that carries General Dostum, however respected Mr Ghani is for his competence and his cleanliness. Mr Ghani has made his running mate apologise for the suffering caused by all sides during Afghanistan’s civil war of the 1990s. But for some, having General Dostum just a heartbeat away from the presidential palace would be too much.

They may turn to Dr Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and former foreign minister who got his second name only because newspaper sub-editors in the West could not contend with his lack of a surname. He ran second to the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, president since 2001, in the election in 2009 and goes into this contest as the nominal favourite. An articulate opponent of the Taliban when they were in power from 1996 to 2001, Dr Abdullah makes up in respect for what he lacks in back-room clout.

Eleven candidates are on the ballot. If none gets more than 50% of the votes, a run-off will take place some time later in the summer. The race for second place is thus important. It is where Mr Karzai comes in. He will not openly back a candidate. But in early March his elder brother, Qayum, ducked out of the race and threw his support behind Zalmai Rassoul, another doctor and a longtime member of the Karzai cabinet with an unusual reputation for someone so close to power of being clean. Few believe that Dr Rassoul is anything but the president’s man. Mr Karzai is known to want to protect his interests, and having a friend as his successor is one way to do that. What is more, from provincial governors and wealthy business types to district police chiefs in far-off corners of the country, many Afghans are afraid of losing out from a change of government—a threat which to some appears greater than that posed by a resurgent Taliban.

Still, only Mr Ghani might be, as one analyst describes it, “crazy enough” to bring in reforms to deal with the country’s corruption and other deep-seated problems. By contrast, all three main candidates have vowed to do swiftly what Mr Karzai has refused: sign a security pact with the United States that would enable some foreign troops to remain beyond the end of this year. That would reassure the vast majority of Afghans.

We was robbed

Before then, the race is on for the two coveted run-off spots. Dr Abdullah is of mixed Tajik and Pushtun descent but widely viewed as Tajik. Unless he can muster more than 40% of the vote in the first round, then he is likely to be crushed when most of the remaining candidates, all Pushtuns, throw their weight behind one of their own—either Dr Rassoul or Mr Ghani.

Such scenarios, however, come with a caveat: that the election may not be clean and transparent. Given past history, that is all too likely. Last week a former chief of the electoral commission said that every Afghan poll since 2001 has been tainted by fraud. Mr Karzai is widely reckoned to have stolen the election in 2009.

Stricter controls should be in place this time round, but they may simply lead to smarter ways of cheating. Meanwhile, the turnout is at risk from more than the weather. The Taliban has vowed a violent disruption of the polls. And then weeks of uncertainty will follow as the first-round ballots are counted. Already, Mr Ghani and Dr Abdullah are preparing a raft of complaints against Dr Rassoul. A surprisingly strong showing by the president’s man will invite a chorus that the result has been fixed—an easier charge to level this time because of the lack of foreign oversight. All in all, says an observer, the election is guaranteed to be “hugely messy”.

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