The mass illiterate people of the war-torn Afghanistan are going to vote for the second time in post-Taliban “democracy”. With the polls day getting nearer, electoral process is gaining momentum. In capital Kabul, the electoral atmosphere is in full bloom with the presidential contenders actively campaigning through corner meetings, public gatherings, TV-debates and media statements. Meanwhile, the political environment is hot with claims and accusations.
In the presidential polls of 2004, there were 14 candidates. In 2009 there are 41. It will also be very confusing for Afghans to find their candidates of choice in a list of 41 on the ballot paper. It’s very likely that almost 30 of the total 41 candidates will not be able to get 10,000 votes—a number they have submitted registration cards to the Election Commission.
Karzai Apparently Leading
A recent survey and the apparent atmosphere shows incumbent President Karzai with lead followed by two other prominent candidates Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former Foreign Minister and Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai, former Finance Minister. The survey by the International Republican Insititute Karzai with lead having favor of 31 percent of likely voters surveyed—a decline from 54 percent in 2004. What makes the ground favorable for him are comparatively weak competitors. The survey showed only 7 percent support for Abdullah Abdullah and 4 percent Ashraf Ghani. Meanwhile, 69 percent of those surveyed—about 3000 Afghans from different provinces—had a favorable opinion of President Karzai, and 43 percent said he deserves the second term.
However, these surveys cannot depict the actual picture of the electoral atmosphere. In a first-of-its-kind giant gathering two weeks ago in the historic Ghazi Stadium of Kabul—where Taliban used to persecute people—approximately 25000 Afghans rallied in favor of Mr. Karzai. President’s camp got weight last month when some of his presumed strong competitors like the influential Governor of Nangarhar Gul Agha Sherzai and former Finance Minister Mr. Ahady didn’t nominate for the race apparently favoring Karzai’s bid. Two other prominent figures, former US Ambassador to Kabul Mr. Khalilzad and former Interior Minister, the US citizen Dr. Jalali did not nominate at all. Later in an unexpected scenario, President Karzai become stronger when two prominent ethnic political parties—Wahdat Party and Junbish e Milli headed by prominent figures of Afghan politics—Abdul Rashid Dostum and Haji Muhammad Muhaqiq—politicians having considerable support among their respective communities, Hazara and Uzbek that make two of the largest ethnic groups of Afghanistan—joined the Karzai camp. Expectantly, the breakaway faction of militant Hizb-e-Islami of Hekmatyar also announced to support Karzai. Chairman Senate, Sibghatullah Mujaddadi said he has received a “divine hint” to vote for Karzai. Though not publicly, but its assumed former influential warlord, Rasoul Sayyaf will also support Karzai in exchange for a Ministry and the Supreme Court.
In a grand public rally in Mazar-e-Sharif city two weeks back, local media in Kabul reported about 70000 supporters of Wahdat and Junbish parties chanted in favor of Karzai. Such a large gathering in the home-town of Governor Ata was a blow to the expectations of Dr. Abdullah from Balkh province of Northern Afghanistan, which is assumed the backbone areas of vote bank for Abdullah.
Abdullah and Ghani Top Rivals
On the other hand, the second prominent candidate, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah of former Northern Alliance enjoys backing of some influential figures including the Governor of Mazar e Sharif, Muhammad Ata Noor. On addressing a gathering in favor of Abdullah Abdullah, the relations between Ata Noor and President Karzai got bitter followed by rumors in Afghan media that President Karzai is to ask Ata for resignation.
Hizb Harkat e Islami (Islamic Movement Party)—formerly headed by Iran-backed cleric of Kandhar, Sheikh Asif Mohsini, the supporter of the controversial articles of the Shia Family Law that outraged rights groups in Afghanistan and abroad—under the current leadership of former Governor of Herat Mr. Anwari announced support to Abdullah Abdullah. Meanwhile, some figures of another fragmented opposition group, United Front, have also pledged support for Abdullah.
There have been several public gatherings in favor of the third strongest Mr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai and some tribal leaders announcing support. Other influential candidates include Mir Wais Yasini and Dr. Ramzan Bashardost, former Planning Minister. Bashardost was the first to launch campaign in provinces by visiting Nangarhar. Other candidates like Syed Karim Jalal have also been addressing public gatherings in Kunduz and Kabul.
The rivals of Karzai are campaigning under different slogans and programs. Mr. Abdullah talks of changing the system from Presidential to Parliamentary and decentralization of power. Ashraf Ghani is attracting voters through his comprehensive 10-years Framework for Afghanistan targeting one million jobs and full security across the country. All the rivals are at the same time claiming to be the next President.
Alliance Between the Rivals?
Apparently Karzai is in lead following Dr. Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. There were rumors of alliance between the top rivals of Karzai. But in a press release last week, Ashraf Ghani denied chances of withdrawal. The alliance between Dr. Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, as some analysts speculate, seems less likely due to their diverse policies as Abdullah emphasizes on parliamentary system while Ashraf Ghani favors Presidential.
All the top rivals of President Karzai strongly believe the elections of August 20 will go for a run-off vote. Sources say the top rivals Dr. Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Mir Wais Yasini have come to an understanding that who ever will lead in the first round, others would support him against President Karzai in the run-off.
Article 18 of the Electoral Law says; “If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast, a runoff election shall be held between the two most voted candidates within two weeks following the announcement of election results. The candidate who receives more valid votes in the runoff election shall be declared elected.”
Lack of financial assistance was one of the reasons; the Election Commission postponed the polls in May. Holding the election costs 223 million U.S. dollars which is contributed by the international community. Yet any country has not pledged support if polls go for a run-of.