Counting on trouble in Afghanistan

Voting was a hit, but ethnic rivalries and the Taliban could yet derail the election before the results are in

An Afghan man casts his vote at a polling station in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan on April 5, 2014. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

An Afghan man casts his vote at a polling station in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan on April 5, 2014. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

On April 5, millions of Afghans braved bad weather and the bluster of the Taliban to vote in what was arguably their country’s most significant election ever. As many as seven million cast their ballots, nearly 60 per cent of eligible voters, this under the threat of Taliban attacks and after more than a decade of rotten politics.

Once the dust settles—preliminary results are not due until April 24, with final results three weeks later—Afghans will have a new president, after 12 years of Hamid Karzai and, if all goes according to plan, they will have experienced their first democratic transition of executive power in their turbulent history.

But if recent history is any lesson, there is no such thing as a plan in Afghanistan, only the cynical intrigues of power brokers and tough geopolitical realities. Afghans voted in huge numbers for change; what they are likely to get is the status quo.

Balloting in one of the world’s most under-developed nations is no easy task. Ballot boxes must be transferred from remote areas by donkey; the tallying process is fraught with the potential for fraud; and post-election rhetoric can easily transform an environment of hope into one of combative self-interest among political stakeholders. The early signs are not good: Leading candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai began claiming victory hours after the polls closed on April 5, rousing the ire of their competitors in what has been a tight race. Fraud allegations are mounting and could yet de-rail the entire process. And, according to preliminary results compiled by Pajhwok Afghan News, a runoff appears nearly certain.

A second round of voting, in the event no one candidate wins a majority, poses some serious problems, considering the massive deployment of security forces—some 350,000 police and military personnel—that secured polling stations against Taliban threats on election day. By all accounts, the operation was a success, but in a runoff, they will have to do it all over again, likely facing a more determined Taliban. “I’m praying to God a runoff does not happen,” says Mohammad Taqi, 47, a security guard at one of Kabul’s private universities. “I have faith in our security forces, but these Taliban are madmen.”

As for the two candidates who make it to a runoff, the relative decency of earlier campaigning looks set to give way to some dirty tactics. The minority ethnic vote will be up for grabs. Abdullah and Ahmadzai are Tajik and Pashtun, respectively, the two dominant ethnicities in Afghanistan, representing approximately 70 per cent of the population. Ahmadzai has been criticized for not doing more to court the Tajik vote, but has a strong following among his fellow Pashtuns. His vice-presidential candidates are a powerful Uzbek former warlord and a Hazara (an influential ethnic group that controls much of Afghanistan’s bureaucracy). Abdullah, who identifies as Tajik but is in fact half-Pashtun, has been more strategically shrewd, enlisting a powerful Pashtun former warlord along with a well-respected Hazara, also a former warlord, as his vice-presidential running mates.

Playing the ethnic card at this stage will lead to “the beginning of a new misery for the Afghan people,” warns Safia Seddiqi, the vice-presidential candidate for Amin Arsala. “The ethnic mix on the presidential tickets may look like a good thing, but these are all former commanders who are only talking about themselves. They are not talking about Afghanistan.” Manipulating ethnic divides, a recurring menace over the past few decades, has been taboo up to this point in the campaigning, but in a runoff could prove tempting for the leading hopefuls. The bloody inter-ethnic civil war of the 1990s was only put on pause in the face of a common Taliban threat; it remains a button waiting to be pressed by opportunistic leaders.

Nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope. One Taliban-affiliated militant leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, backed the elections, telling his followers to participate in support of his preferred candidate, Qutbuddin Helal, his own deputy prime minister during his short stint as Afghan prime minister in the mid-1990s. Hekmatyar’s blessing marks the first occasion where an anti-government militia has recognized Afghanistan’s democratic institutions. Abdullah and Ahmadzai have also both stated that they will sign a security agreement with the U.S., ensuring a continued presence of troops in Afghanistan after the scheduled NATO withdrawal later this year.

Still, the risks in the weeks ahead outweigh past milestones. It’s tempting to be swept away by the outpouring of positive emotions in the wake of election day, but casting a ballot was the easy part. Seven million Afghans risked their lives for democracy. Now it’s up to a few dozen power brokers to ensure those efforts weren’t in vain.