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POLITICS: What Happened to the Afghan Elections?

KABUL, May 18 2009 (IPS) - After a series of well-known Afghan politicians announced their candidacy, the up-coming presidential election was widely believed to be a turning-point in the country’s history. But most of the big names declined to register, leaving what critics allege is a weak opposition to President Hamid Karzai.

Although Karzai was widely reputed to be ineffective, the fractured opposition means that many analysts expect the president to win this summer’s elections in a landslide. The turn of events begs the question – why did Karzai’s erstwhile opponents back down?

Critics allege that the opposition to Karzai – a motley collection of former government officials, businessmen and warlords – were unable to come together and decide on a united stance. The leading contenders – Gul Agha Sherzai, Ashraf Ghani, Ahmed Ali Jalali – were unable to put aside their differences and choose a common representative.

“Everyone has an ego and no one wanted to allow anyone else to take the center stage,” says Jalali, the former interior minister.

Many say that candidates will peddle their support for privilege and fame. “As soon as weak candidates realise that they can’t win the election (alone), they will give their votes to a more powerful candidate and in return they will ask for some privileges,” says Said Jawad Hussaini, president of the Afghanistan-e-Jawan party.

For other potential candidates in the August presidential poll, the issue might have been losing privileges, not gaining them. For instance, Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, was widely rumoured to be a top contender for the presidency.

Numerous tribal groups held demonstrations in favour of his candidacy, and he even convened a large meeting in Dubai to discuss Afghan politics and reconstruction. But analysts say that he may have decided against running because, per the Afghan constitution, he would otherwise have to give up his American citizenship.

Similar sentiments might have forced Jalali, another American citizen, from giving up his candidacy. It is also widely rumored that Jalali and another candidate, Anwar-ul-haq Ahadi, quit the race because of files the Afghan security forces have on them that they were reluctant to have open to public scrutiny. Jalali’s Chief of Staff, Ajmal Shinwari, denies such accusations, however.

Rafiq Ahmad Shaheer, a lecturer at Herat University, says that Ahadi might have been dissuaded from running because of pressure from his party, the Pashtun-nationalist group Afghan Millat.

President Karzai’s deft manoeuvering also stymied the opposition. Karzai replaced his first vice president, Ahmad Zia Massoud, with Qasim Fahim, in a move that split the opposition. Fahim is a leading figure associated with the United Front, and it is widely believed that Karzai bartered a vice-presidential seat for support from him.

“Karzai chose him because he wanted to weaken the National United Front and gain the support of Jihadi leaders,” says Dr. Muhajudin Mehdi, a politics expert.

Karzai’s move is also in keeping with the time-honoured tradition of balancing out the representation from various ethnic groups. “This is why candidates are trying to choose their vice presidential candidates from other ethnic groups,” says Abdullah Uruzgani, a researcher and member of the Andisha Foundation, a think tank.

Karzai is playing the game deftly, he says, and other candidates have not been able to use vice presidential appointments to their advantage, he adds. “Ashraf Ghani was expected to choose powerful vice presidents, but on the contrary, he chose some not very well-known people and this shows that he is not serious,” Uruzgani says.

Most of the candidates lacked any strong support network within the country, whereas Karzai has built just such a network over the last few years.

Karzai is reputed to have the backing of many tribal elders, ulema, and other influential figures, who can mobilise support for him come election time. Jalali, Ghani and Khalilzad all live in the United States, making it difficult to cultivate such support networks here.

Moreover, many candidates may have lacked international backing as well. In an age where political support from international countries is crucial, this may have further discouraged some from running.

“The candidates’ resignations show that important decisions in Afghanistan cannot be made independently,” says Ghulam Mujtaba Rasoli, an Afghan political expert. “The support of powerful countries has a role in every decision made in Afghanistan, including the presidential election.”

“Although the fourth article of the Afghan constitution claims the right of sovereignty for its people,” he adds, “we can not deny the influences of some foreign and neighboring countries. Considering the decades of war in Afghanistan it is impossible to make decisions independently, which is a striking example of what I am talking about.”

Most importantly, the U.S. could not find another candidate to back, despite trying.

The Obama administration has proved much more critical of Karzai than the previous administration, and in many cases officials have openly criticised the Afghan president. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called Afghanistan a “narco state” and Obama has said that “Karzai should get out of from under his bunker and attend to his country.”

A recent report from the British Guardian newspaper declared that U.S. officials were trying to limit Karzai’s power by appointing a prime minister. This did not succeed and the U.S. was left without options or alternatives in Afghanistan. Experts say that none of the other major candidates received U.S. backing, something that also dissuaded them from running.

The result of most leading candidates dropping out of the race is that most experts believe that Karzai will easily win the election. “Without any opposition, and with his support networks in place, Karzai will have an easy time in August,” says Haroun Mir, policy analyst with the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

“Karzai is a very clever politician,” he adds. “No one has been able to beat him, and he has proven that even if he can’t run the country well, he certainly can play politics well.”)

(*Killid is an independent Afghan media group which has been an IPS partner since 2004. This is from the Killid Weekly.)

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