Afghanistan’s presidential race is taking shape amid peace talks between the United States and the Taliban insurgents, who so far have refused to talk with the government.
On January 27, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy on Afghan reconciliation, visited Afghanistan to brief and consult with the president after six days of consecutive talks with representatives of the Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar.
Khalilzad said in an interview with a local television station that the Taliban refused to talk with the current Afghan government, among other reasons, because then the talks would give credit to one candidate: current President Ashraf Ghani.
Ghani, along with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, entered the race on the last day of registration for the presidential election, which is scheduled for July 20.
Ghani already faces tough contenders in the election, where he has 17 rivals. Former Afghan government officials and powerbrokers lined up to challenge his bid for a second term, including former National Security Advisor Haneef Atmar, who resigned from his position after working with Ghani for four years.
“Atmar invested in power brokers,” says Davood Naji, an independent political activist and former BBC journalist. “He recruited 20 to 30 advisors, mostly sons of powerbrokers, during his service as a national security advisor.”
But Naji explains that Atmar’s running mates, Yunus Qanuni and Mohammad Mohaqiq, would not bring in a large share of votes as they were no longer vote banks.
“The powerbrokers’ sons failed to secure a seat in the parliament,” Naji notes, looking at the results from Afghanistan’s December parliamentary elections. “Mohaqiq’s son failed to secure a seat from Kabul; Hekmatyar’s son couldn’t secure one either.”
Other prominent rivals of Ghani include Rahmatullah Nabil, a onetime chief of the country’s intelligence agency; Zalmai Rassoul, a 75-year-old former foreign minister who served under the presidency of Hamid Karzai; and Shaida Abdali, a former diplomat seen as a close aide to Karzai.
Also, for the third time, former eye doctor Abdullah Abdullah has entered the race to become president and will once again challenge Ghani. Abdullah at first refused to concede his in the 2014 elections, alleging widespread electoral fraud and a stolen election. Abdullah eventually agreed to join the so-called National Unity Government in the newly created post of chief executive, in a deal worked out by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“There is a possibility that Abdullah and Ghani reach a deal over the government in the same form,” predicts Naji. “But I believe there would not be a winner in the first round of the election. The election will likely go to the second round.”
Ghani faces an uphill battle to win a second term, as his presidency has been undermined by poverty, corruption, and insecurity. Despite Ghani’s attempt to a build a reputation as a reformist technocrat, economic visionary, democratic modernizer, and champion of peace, his image today is more that of an impatient and isolated leader. His acknowledgment that the country had lost 45,000 security personnel under his command will make it even harder for the public to trust him again.
Now, the peace talks seem to be the last chance for candidates, including Ghani, to earn credit in the eyes of voters. Ghani’s efforts, however, are complicated by stonewalling from the Taliban.
Meanwhile, rival candidate Atmar has suggested that the government is not seeking to negotiate in good faith. “Instead of creating hope and leading this critical process, the government is trying to damage the process and create fear among the people,” he told the New York Times.
Atmar is among a group of opposition leaders and former officials meeting with Taliban representatives in Moscow this week. Also included in those “intra-Afghan” talks are Atmar’s running mates, Qanuni and Mohaqiq; former President Hamid Karzai; and Atta Mohammad Noor, the former governor of Balkh province who clashed repeatedly with Ghani. Pointedly not included: any representatives of the current government.
Ali Adili, a researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank, says there is speculation that developments in the peace talks would not result in holding elections, but rather the establishment of a caretaker government.
“There is uncertainty,” Adili adds. “The peace talks and calls for reform of the electoral bodies of the country increase uncertainty.”
In October 2018, Afghanistan held parliamentary elections after a three-year delay. The election was chaotic. The Independent Commission of Election (IEC) was accused of corruption, mismanagement, and bribery. Nearly four months after the election in October, the results of only nine out of 33 provinces have been finalized.
Many parliamentary candidates did not accept the primary results of the election. Supporters of failed candidates blocked roads that connect the Afghan capital to the northern part of the country. For half of a day, the International airport of the capital was locked down due to protests related to the election. Given that, there are serious concerns that the upcoming presidential polls will be similarly fraught with allegations of fraud and incompetence.
“Political parties and the government think that IEC cannot hold the upcoming presidential election,” says Adili. “They all call for the reform within the IEC.”
But there is no agreement as yet over how to reform the IEC. According to Adili, political parties have discussed three options: a selection committee calls for applicants and submits a shortlist of candidates to the president; Ghani appoints new commissioners for the IEC in consultation with political parties and candidates; management of the election is outsourced to a private company.
Politicians “might see the reform as a way to increase their influences over the commissions,” Adili emphasizes. “It damages the process of reform, which may last longer than expected.” Adili concludes that the calls for reform may instead turn into a new battlefield between various factions.
This time, amid peace talks in which the government has already been sidelined, the ambitious plan is to hold four elections on July 20, 2019: the presidential vote; parliamentary election in Ghazni; provincial council elections; and district council elections. Another fraud-marred election will likely further destabilize the country and delegitimize the government for face-to-face talks with the Taliban insurgents.
Ezzatullah Mehrdad is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. His work has appeared in Global Voices, the Afghanistan Times, and the Kabul Times.