As US and NATO forces hand over security responsibilities in Afghanistan to the country’s own forces, political parties and presidential hopefuls are preparing for what could be the most pivotal presidential elections in Afghan history.
Although a successful security handover hinges on an effective political transition from the current administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to a new leadership, Afghan leaders inside and outside of the government say Mr. Karzai hasn't done enough to set up a political system that will support a new president.
"For example, [Karzai] didn't encourage a young generation of Afghan leaders to emerge. He didn't support the development of strong multiethnic political groups or parties, nor did he form his own party, which leads one to believe that he had a political agenda and did not want to build the political capacity of the country," says Hamidullah Farooqi, spokesperson for the Truth and Justice Party and former minister of transport and civil aviation under Karzai.
Political analysts say Karzai is taking advantage of the weaknesses in the system and in the fragile state of the country to ensure that he will retain power for years to come in some form.
Afghanistan’s next presidential elections are scheduled for the spring of 2014. However, Karzai announced in April that he was discussing with his cabinet the prospect of calling the elections a year early to ensure that the elections are safeguarded by the presence of international military forces.
Karzai's influence over who's next
If he moves up elections, Karzai would have to resign and his first vice president, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, would take over. According to Afghanistan’s constitution, emergency elections would then have to be scheduled within three months.
Waheed Mujda, a Kabul-based political analyst, says that would mean Karzai may be able to push through a candidate he endorses without giving other candidates enough time to prepare for the elections and properly campaign.
“In the 10 years that he has been in power, Karzai has not fostered a real and open political process. The upcoming presidential elections will be as much about tribal and ethnic power as it was 10 years ago,” says Mr. Mujda.
Analysts say that the only way the majority of Afghans, who are Pashtuns, will accept the next leadership is if the next president is a Pashtun from a leading tribe. Karzai was able to hold his own in large part because he is a Pashtun from the southern province of Kandahar.
“A non-Pashtun president may create a roadblock on efforts to reconcile with the Taliban, which is essential to any political and security transition,” says Mujda.
Another complication to elections is that despite the more than 20 major political parties registered in Afghanistan, candidates may have trouble running along party lines.
“Political parties still don’t have strength yet in Afghanistan, and the public doesn’t trust them,” says Azizullah Ludin, chairman of the Afghan government’s anticorruption board and the former president of the independent electoral commission for the 2009 Afghan presidential elections.
Mr. Ludin says candidates need strong ethnic and tribal connections to campaign in provinces where violence from the Taliban and other insurgent groups are increasing.
“It’s unfortunate, but the fact of the matter is also that any real candidate will need millions of dollars to campaign. If you don’t give cellphones, buy cars, rent homes, and buy off supporters, no one will campaign for you,” he says.
Who’s in the running?
Only two people have formally announced that they intend to run for the presidency at this point: Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Minister of Interior in the Karzai administration and Fawzia Koofi, the current and first female deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament. Mr. Jalali is Pashtun but Ms. Koofi is not.
Other potential candidates include opposition figures like Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s top contender in the 2009 presidential elections and who is half Pashtun, and a list of other former and current Afghan government officials who have run in previous elections.
“Farooq Wardak and Umer Daudzai [both Pashtuns] are waiting to be tapped by Karzai and most likely one of them will be his choice candidate,” says Mujda. Mr. Wardak is the current minister of education and Mr. Daudzai is Karzai’s former chief of staff. If either receives Karzai’s support, it is likely that with it will come Karzai’s financial and political networks.
Koofi and a few others like Nader Nadery, a former commissioner for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, have caught the attention of some of Afghans attracted to the possibility of a professional Afghan with a strong record of protecting the rights of Afghans to run for the presidency.
But Koofi, a parliamentarian from the northern province of Badakhshan, says competing with candidates who receive money from illegal channels will be difficult.
Her tactic to deal with this is to mobilize the support of the Afghan youth below the age of 25. That group makes up close to 65 percent of the Afghan population and a significant amount of the voting population, according to population statistics. Koofi says the Afghan youth could have more influence in the upcoming presidential elections if the elections are run freely and fairly.
“If they organize themselves and support a candidate they believe in, they can make a difference and change the political environment in Afghanistan,” she says.
Still, conservative forces in Afghanistan say the country is not ready for a young, progressive leader.
“With all of the progress that has come to Afghanistan in the last 10 years, this society is still one that is lead by elders and the older generations. The younger candidates haven’t proven themselves to the older generations yet and haven’t won their trust,” says Abdual Hadi Arghandiwal, the Afghan minister of economy and the leader of the Hezb-e-Islami political party, which is linked to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic militant group of the same name.
“We need a president who respects the foundations of democracy and human rights in his actions but doesn’t speak too much about it to a conservative Afghan public and scare them away,” says Mujda.