“People point to all the flaws that our new democracy has, but we might emerge as the strongest democracy post-elections,” says Freshta Karim, a 21-year-old first time voter, who works with an international non-governmental organization (INGO).
At a time when everyone in India is talking about the apparent Modi wave, in Afghanistan’s fragile new democracy, there is no clear for front-runner as it goes to polls on Saturday. The battle for the president’s throne appears wide open, and in all possibility, there might be a second round to choose the winner, though there appear to be some hectic back-channel negotiations among several candidates for voter consolidation to avoid the run-off.
As things stand, the presidential election appears to be a three-way contest among Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Zalmai Rassoul and Abdullah Abdullah.
In a society divided on ethnic lines where clan allegiance still appears stronger, one maybe be excused for believing that there is a ‘wave’, depending upon the area you are in or the people you talk to. For example, if you were in Panjshir or Balkh, an overwhelmingly large number of people would not mince words in saying they will vote for Abdullah Abdullah, the former aide of the ‘Lion of Panjshir’, Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Many people from Kandahar or Paktia, the Pashtun dominated provinces, seem to be basking in the popularity of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. On the streets of Kabul, from taxi drivers to educated professionals, particularly among the Pashtuns, Ghani has earned the popularity and respect as a professor, an “intelligent man”, and for his “clarity on policy matters”, and above all as he is Pashtun, though not many would want to accept this.
What is going against him, however, is that though his choice of first deputy, the Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum, may get him almost all of the Uzbek votes (the Uzbeks are the fourth largest community), his record during the civil wars does not go down well with the West and several people within Afghanistan. It also does him no good that he does not have any Tajik leader as deputies, a trend generally followed in the country since the Tajiks are the second biggest community.
Abdullah seems to be the favourite of Tajiks, even though his father was a Pashtun from Kandahar because of his long association with the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. He scores over Ahmad Zia Masoud, the younger brother of Ahmad Shah, who is the first deputy of another strong contender Zalmai Rassoul, due to his seniority and also because “he was a Mujahid” as many in Panjshir put it.
Abdullah had secured over 30% votes in the previous election, but withdrew from the race just few days before the second round, accusing Karzai of widespread corruption using state machinery. His choice of second deputy, Mohammad Mohaqiq may help him get the maximum Hazara votes, as clearly he is one of the most popular leaders of the third largest community, whose votes many believe would be the deciding factor.
The gossip on the streets of Kabul has already begun that Zalmai Rassoul appears to be the “most consensus” choice and that “a deal” has already been brokered with the United States. Though those close to him vehemently deny this, it has gained ground since incumbent Hamid Karzai too has put his weight behind him. He manoeuvred to convince his brother Qayum Karzai to withdraw his candidature in Rassoul’s support, and another candidate, Abdul Rahim Wardak, who also withdrew his candidature, apparently did so “under pressure”.
His second deputy Habiba Sarobi is a Hazara as well, and the fact that she is a woman may help him get women’s votes. Popular woman MP Fawzia Koofi and Sikh Senator Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, too, have extended their supports in his favour. Though Rasoul appears to be the ‘consensus’ choice, he does not enjoy as much support among Pashtuns who doubt his “Pashtun-ness” and point out that he “can’t even speak Pashto fluently”.
With about 68% of voters below the age of 30, it is the Afghan youth who will decide their future leader. Even though till the last minute, all sorts of negotiations were on to avoid the second round, in all possibility the battle may drag on to the runoff, if only massive allegations of fraud and corruptions do not mar the election outcome, a clear sign that the Afghans have come a long way in over a decade and are strengthening democracy step by step.
Mohammad Reyaz is a Delhi based Journalist, currently in Afghanistan. He tweets at @journalistreyaz.