The South Asia Channel

Election antics in Kabul

Election antics in Kabul

In less than nine months, the most important political event to happen in Afghanistan in four decades is expected to produce the first-ever peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected leader to another. That is, if the legal framework for holding elections is in place, the contested security conditions permit enough Afghans to cast their ballots next April as scheduled, the results are widely accepted, and relative stability can be assured after NATO’s withdrawal comes to an end by the start 2015.

While Afghans are pinning their hopes on seeing the emergence of a leadership team that can build upon the gains of the past decade and address key challenges that remain unresolved, they are also keenly aware of the inherent risks associated with a botched election or the overall mismanagement of the political transition process.

Nowadays, Kabul is rife with politicking related to the upcoming vote, partly fueled by conspiracy theories and prediction models, partly aimed at resolving outstanding electoral issues and building coalitions that could eventually field candidates by mid-September, the date set by the electoral calendar for candidate nomination.

No official candidate or party ticket has emerged yet, but all interested parties are already deeply involved in pre-campaign consultation and hobnobbing. The immediate pre-occupation of serious actors is to ensure a level playing field and avoid a repeat of the bungled 2009 election, which was seen as fraudulent by many observers and contenders.

Politicians are also divided between the ‘consensus-driven’ and ‘ballot-driven’ visions for the election. In other words, there is a constituency that is advocating for a mechanism – not yet determined – that would allow for the elites and top leaders to agree on a ticket ahead of nationwide voting. Others are vehemently against backroom deals, and advocate for a transparent, free, and fair election as stipulated in the Constitution.

A third — and, for some, more realistic — approach is to engage in some level of consensus and coalition-building on all sides, but allow the ballot box to determine the outcome in a relatively inclusive and transparent manner.

In all camps there is talk of "ejma’h," or consensus-building, and national dialogue. There are at least half a dozen versions of such an ejma’h floating in proposal papers, but none seem to have attracted a de facto quorum so far.

When asked, a well-placed political actor recently described a pro-government version of ejma’h as "either maximally a substitute to election, or minimally support for Karzai’s selected candidate."

The consensus-building process went into a tailspin recently after President Hamid Karzai expressed a desire to hold a consultative Loya Jirga (LJ) – as opposed to a constitutional LJ – to discuss the U.S.-Afghan bilateral defense and security agreement (put on hold by Kabul after the debacle of opening a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar), if and when it is negotiated.

Political suspicions also spiked when a tribal gathering in Southern Kandahar recently endorsed the idea of a third term for Hamid Karzai. It even raised doubts within the Karzai family, as they wrangle to decide whether a Karzai sibling should make a run with or without the president’s consent.

For their part, some members of the "loyal opposition" are concerned that a Jirga might be part of a ploy to push through a constitutional amendment that would either allow Karzai to run a third time or modify the system and create a prime minister’s post, a la Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

On Wednesday, three major opposition groups (National Coalition, Rights and Justice and Afghan Millat) warned that the Jirga proposal might be a charade to conceal ulterior political motivations.

While there is little appetite in the country for a lot of smoke-and-mirror politics, rumors are circulating that elections could either be postponed or annulled altogether because of these antics. With election laws delayed, the peace process in limbo, relations with Pakistan strained over border attacks and ongoing insurgent violence, and expectations from the U.S. unmet, some analysts in Kabul claim that a clique around Karzai may be conspiring to have him invoke Article 144 of the Constitution to declare a state of emergency before elections could be held.

Such a dramatic move would not only be resisted forcefully by those who favor elections, but will also further harm international support for NATO’s transition out of the country and for post-2014 funding of critical Afghan programmes linked to the security and economic sectors.

In order to reinstate a certain degree of trust among the political contenders, an ejma’h or national consensus-building process should be issue-specific and inclusive. For example, all sides would benefit from an ejma’h on "relations with Pakistan" or "dealing with suicide attacks."

Trust building would also encourage more voters to participate in elections. With voter registration numbers below expectation so far, there is a risk that fewer eligible voters would trust the system and many may be inclined to believe that their votes will not make a difference.

In order to avoid political backlash and avert a national crisis, Karzai’s best option – the one he has pledged to take on numerous occasions – is to facilitate the holding of credible elections, while endorsing a candidate of his own choice, but avoiding meddling in the process.

He has also made it known that he would like to be remembered as the founder of Afghan democracy (true or not), now that a legacy as "peacemaker" is on hold along with talks through the Taliban’s Doha office. Any attempt to subvert the Constitution or undermine elections over the next few months will certainly leave his legacy in tatters.

As a lame-duck president with more than 12 years of government service, he has the advantage of putting his supporters’ financial and political weight behind his preferred choice.

For that reason, several aspirants within his family and loyalist circles are in wait-and-see mode, eager to be blessed with the president’s patronage network. They are mostly hopefuls who have weaker social and monetary lure, but have at times enjoyed foreign support, including during the 2009 elections.

Others with a stronger domestic presence are highly wary of Karzai’s network, and want to coalesce around the ideals of reform and change. Among them is the Group of 23 (G23) making up the Corporation Council of the Political Parties and Coalition of Afghanistan (CCPPCA).

G23, which includes most loyal opposition groups, was set up last year to take a unified stance to ensure that all new laws concerning elections have a constitutional base and are not manipulated by any side.

Although it is not a full-fledged coalition yet, and is still fragile on the fringes, G23 has nonetheless reached a level of cooperation not anticipated a year ago. They recently agreed to basic principles and a vision statement, and have set up committees to work on a political platform and identify criteria and mechanisms to select a credible ticket.

G23 members are expected to face hurdles and defections by the time a decision has been made to present a ticket, but they could still end up mounting a forceful challenge to the establishment candidate as long as they can cross ethnic and religious boundaries, offer practical alternatives to the status-quo and fire up the electorate.

Last week, the G23’s executive committee issued a warning that "any effort by groups within the government to undermine the election and retain power illegally would not be tolerated by Afghan political parties and citizens."

Two constituencies whose force and political pull are not yet quantified, but who may play a determining role, are the under-30 young adults and the female voters – even though the latest registration drive saw a low female turnout. Although untested and still not organized nationally, they are a force that might also impact parliamentary (to be held in 2015) and provincial council elections (to be held simultaneously with presidential elections).

Many among the reformists believe that the problem at this juncture is not with the number of candidates or the slow pace of coalition-building, but with the failure to pass in a timely manner the two sets of laws that govern elections: the Electoral Law and the Structural Law, which sets out the mandate and duties of the Independent Election Commission (IEC).

The IEC’s outgoing chief now says that if these laws are not passed by parliament – following several delays initiated by the government – before legislators go on recess in a few days, it will become impossible to implement the revised laws, and the commission will have no choice but to use Karzai’s controversial 2009 legislative decree to hold elections.

To many, ensuring the independence of the electoral commissions will determine the viability of the balloting. A political leader, who did not want to be named, told me, "there is no substitute and we will fight for it."

In addition to election laws and the independence of the election bodies, fundamental conditions for holding inclusive and transparent elections in April include: issuance of the new e-tazkira (national id card), new voter registration cards and listings, establishment of counter-fraud measures, empowerment of monitoring mechanisms, election security and impartiality of government leaders.

The other issue that could impact elections is the continued violence that has been unleashed by opposition armed groups since the summer fighting season started. Not only can unabated violence prevent those living in  less secure regions from voting, but it can also diminish the very credibility of the elections.

The Taliban and their affiliates are most probably not inclined to enter into talks with the current government any time soon. It becomes imperative that a new widely acceptable elected government backed by a strong popular mandate and support base, revise the current policy of reconciliation and engage the armed groups from a position of strength when conditions are ripe.

With peace talks suspended indefinitely, the bilateral security dialogue held hostage by the talks, Washington bent on a quick exit, and the Obama administration showing frustration with Afghan leadership, the electoral process is more important than ever before.

Not only does Afghanistan’s stability and prosperity depend to a large degree on holding legitimate and inclusive elections, but the international community’s commitments – as clearly spelled out by the Norwegian government’s warning this week that it would reduce aid if the Afghan side failed to implement reforms – are conditioned on a credible outcome as well.

The Afghan political class has little time left and much at stake to ensure a viable political transition in 2014, and the international community, as it has often pledged, needs to stay engaged and focused to prevent a relapse to untenable conditions.

Omar Samad is President of Silkroad Consulting and the Senior Central Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation. He was Afghan Ambassador to Canada (2004-2009) and France (2009-2011), and Spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004).