The race for finding the successor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reached it last lap as Afghanistan gears up for the June 14 run-off between former Foreign Minister and Northern Alliance leader Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Wednesday was the last day for campaigning and all eyes are now fixed for Saturday’s poll.
Afghanistan created history on April 5, 2014, by turning out in large numbers to vote for the first transition of power since Hamid Karzai took over after NATO intervention in 2001. Seven million of the 12 million eligible voters (about 60%) had turned out at 6,212 polling stations, defying the Taliban’s attempt to sabotage the election process for a peaceful transition. Abdullah ended with 44.9% of the total votes polled, while Ghani came second with 31.5% of the votes. Five other candidates got little less than 25% of the total votes among themselves. However, some of these candidates might still prove to be king makers as Afghans vote in a second round.
Election law in Afghanistan mandates that if none of the candidates get more than 50% of the votes, a run-off would be held between two leading candidates. Notwithstanding the assassination attempt on Abdullah on June 6, the former Northern Alliance leader has shown he is better placed at manoeuvring and building consensuses and has succeeded in garnering the support of critical presidential candidates from the first round.
Prospects of Abdullah Abdullah:
Abdullah has been the clear choice for most Tajiks, though his father was a Pashtun from Kandahar, because of his long association with the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. However, he enjoys limited support among Pashtuns and was a distant third or fourth in several of the southern provinces. Now that the presidential candidates from the first round, Zalmai Rasoul, Gul Agha Sherzai and Qutbuddin Helal and his team also endorsed Abdullah. Rasoul, who ended third with 11.5% votes (but got the majority of votes in Kandahar and a sizeable percentage in other Pashtun dominated states in the south), was in fact seen campaigning for him. Although Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful former warlord, has himself maintained silence, his team has also endorsed Abdullah.
The support of all these Pashtun leaders may prove critical for Abdullah, who had ended second in the 2009 election, but withdrew from the run-off few days before the voting, accusing Hamid Karzai of widespread fraud. If all his supporters, who voted in the first round, vote for him once again, he will still need more than 5% of the votes, and his big hope is on these Pashtun leaders who could help him become a successor to Karzai.
Although outgoing President Hamid Karzai has refrained from publicly expressing his choice, his elder brother and businessman, Mahmood Karzai has extended his support to Abdullah in the name of “national unity”. Around 110 MPs, 66 Senators, number of working women, besides former Intelligence Chief Amrullah Saleh, popular amongst the youth, have also endorsed Abdullah.
Notwithstanding the endorsements by Pashtun leaders, in certain quarters there is fear that if Abdullah wins, Taliban would gain strength, as though he is a Pashtun, he is seen as a leader of Tajiks and hence his victory might create resentment among Pashtuns in the southern provinces.
Prospects of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai:
The sailing, however, in no way appears as smooth for Abdullah as academician and former World Bank employee Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai too has successfully garnered enough support and is hoping to cash in on his popularity amongst the youth, besides the larger consolidation of Pashtun votes.
Another brother of President Karzai, Abdul Qayum Karzai, who had himself filed nominations earlier but later withdrew in support of Rasoul, has this time put his bet on Ashraf Ghani, and thus it would be interesting to see how the division in the Karzai family affects the voting pattern. A shot in the arm for Ghani has been the endorsement by former vice president and younger brother of Ahmad Shah Masoud, Ahmad Zia Masoud. None of the prominent Tajik leaders were in Ghani’s camp as he had chosen Rashid Dostum, an Uzbe, and Sarwar Danish, a Hazara, as his running mates.
Abdul Rahim Ayoubi, the leader of Hizb-e-Milate Mutahed, Afghan youth party, Etelaf-e-Meli Nahj Naween of Afghanistan, Former Afghan President Sibghatollah Mujadidi, former presidential candidates Hedayat Amin Arsala and Daud Sultanzoy, a number of Islamic scholars, the Wadan Afghanistan Party, Ishaqzai Tribal Council and a number of civil society groups operating under the name of Afghanistan Independence Coalition have also announced their endorsements for him.
As the battle has now been restricted between two leaders in the second round, both camps appeared to heap personal attacks on the rival. On social media, rumours and gossip about Abdullah’s expensive lifestyle spread, while doubts were raised on Ghani’s faith, forcing him to invite Abdullah for a religious debate.
During the campaign Abdullah seemed more confident as the rival camp was marked with desperation, when the Governor of Paktia province urged the Pashtuns of the north in a campaign in Balkh to vote for Ghani. A few days later, the first vice presidential candidate of Ghani, controversial Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum, said Uzbek and Turkmen are traitors if they do not vote for Ghani.
In the first round, Pashtun votes were clearly divided among other candidates and it would be interesting to see if they consolidate and vote for Ghani this time or shift their loyalty to Abdullah based on support extended by some of the Pashtun leaders. Afghanistan has not seen a peaceful transition for a long time and if Karzai’s successor is chosen by democratic means, that will create history in itself.
Meanwhile, US-based research organisation Glevum Associates have predicted, based on surveys, that Ghani has increased his level of support from the 31.5% that he secured in the first ballot, to 49% of likely voters in the Glevum poll, while only 42% of those participated in the survey said they would vote for Abdullah. So, according to this poll Ghani is the front-runner, but one must add that the same agency had in December 2013 too put him ahead with 29% of votes compared to 25% for Abdullah.
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(M Reyaz is a Delhi based journalist, who was in Afghanistan during the campaign for the Presidential Election. He tweets at @journalistreyaz)