In the run-up to the Afghan presidential election an air of excitement and rumors of secret deals and strategic alliances had gripped Afghanistan, including the diaspora.
Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah will face-off in a second round election for the presidency of Afghanistan. But what criteria will Afghans use to vote for the two candidates and what effects does this criterion have?
The election showed one thing – Afghans still vote according to ethnicity. Ashraf Ghani–– a former World Bank economist, adviser to the Bonn process and Finance Minster to Karzai's transitional administration–– is the Pashtun candidate. Abdullah–– the former Foreign Minster to Karzai's transitional administration, Secretary General of the Masood Foundation and United Front's Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Taliban regime ––has become the non-Pashtun candidate. Although Abdullah campaigned hard in Pashtun areas and tried to play up his Pashtun paternal background, his close association with Ahmad Shah Masood ensured he did not make significant progress in this regard.
The Candidates and Alliances
Ghani is perceived as a Pashtun academic with no Jihadist history. He is seen as the favorite by a large majority of the Pashtuns. The middle class of urban Afghanistan specially in Kabul and diaspora definitely favor him, mostly because they were the ones who suffered the most under the Mujahedeen rule post 1992. Abdullah's reformist and modern image hasn't altered this fact that much. Nonetheless, rural Afghanistan cannot be underestimated and nor can the fact that warlords or warlord associates and Islamists still hold significant sway over a huge section of the conservative Afghan society, specially outside Kabul.
This is seen as one reason why Ghani has undergone a change of image. One could say the realities of Afghanistan has caught up with him. Emphasizing his Pashtun ethnicity by adopting his tribal name "Ahmadzai", growing a beard, performing a Hajj pilgrimage and showcasing piousness, have all been effective measures.
Abdullah, contrary to Ghani,seems to be very confident in this regard. He knows he has nothing to prove as far as his authentic conservative Afghan image is concerned. In fact his association with the Mujahideen movement has given him way more leeway to perform progressively, signaling change without having to struggle for acceptance. An impression of having learned from the lessons of history is indicated. This has been underpinned by his seemingly modern appearance, which in-turn has been very appealing to a new non-Pashtun middle class emerging since 2002 inside Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, with the increasing possibility of Abdullah in Arg (Afghan Presidential Palace), the chances are high that the Pashtun non-Pashtun divide would exacerbate in the aftermath of the elections. Unfortunately or fortunately, however one choses to see it, it has become an unspoken rule that only a Pashtun can become President of Afghanistan. Abdullah is not perceived as a Pashtun. Though, the endorsement by prominent Pashtun figures have lightened the non-Pashtun weight and brought about more ethnic diversity to his camp, but to assume that these individuals would bring along their first-round votes to Abdullah's side, is far from Afghan reality. The same logic applies to Ghani as well. The ethnic diversity on his team is no guarantee for trans-ethnic vote, maybe except for the Uzbek votes that his very controversial first vice president Dostum brings to the table.
As the run-off by its nature disqualifies the rest candidates, they are expected to take sides, but this does not mean that rest first-round candidates bring along their votes to the new alliance automatically, as the votes were not platform or party based. This is one reason why party-coalition logic known in multi-party democracies does not apply in the Afghan context. As the first round experience showed, voters tend to vote ethnic based. In the Afghan context this means, that when a Pashtun candidate allies with a non-Pashtun, the voter votes for the stronger candidate of his or her ethnic group, meaning, when I vote for a candidate who –– belonging to the same ethnic group that I do–– can become the President, why should I vote for someone whom I pledged allegiance previously, but who can only become a vice-president or a cabinet Minister. So, there is no guarantee that the rest first-round candidates can bring their first-round votes to the new alliance by default.
From a socio-political point of view the two candidates exhibit distinct features, though at this stage one can hardly see notable differences between their political platforms. Ghani, having no history in Afghanistan pre-2001, does not carry Abdullah's burden. This is a Janus-faced aspect. For Abdullah and his team this means that they would have to make double the effort compared to Ghani, to showcase that they actually represent the interest of the afghan people and want to work for peace and stability. Abdullah's or rather his associates have to make up for the past. The history of the Mujahideen movement is as ambivalent, as any other movement in Afghanistan. It has produced its own dissidents, critics and victims. For Abdullah this means a lot of patch-work, reconciliation and a lot of facing-up to criticisms, which could in turn produce more bottom-up stabilizing effects if dealt with democraticallyand constitutionaly. Furthermore the possibility of strong opposition is much higher under Abdullah than under Ghani because of the history he is associated with. This could be seen as destabilizing for a post-conflict region like Afghanistan but as the recent years indicated, opposing forces within a constitutional framework have been anything but destabilizing. On the contrary, this has enabled the rise of a strong civil society, a competitive and critical medial landscape and if not yet pluralistic but a society on a pluralistic political path. Ghani does not bring this controversial dynamics with him, making all the above dynamics less likely.
So, Ghani is the outsider, one who neither experienced the Soviet-Afghan war, nor the tragic destruction of Kabul as a result of inter-Mujahideen wars nor did he experience the prelude to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan; and Abdullah, Abdullah is perceived as the polarizing figure.
Economics and Security dynamics
From an economic and security viewpoint, Ghani seems to be the more attractive candidate, simply because of his professional career. His expertise and experience as an economist and his job of overseeing the transition of security responsibilities from NATO to Afghan forces, gives him an edge in these fields over his opponent. Besides that, the probability of creating countermeasures to dampen the very likely recession of the Afghan economy with the approaching withdrawal of NATO forces; attracting foreign investment and maintaining the current ones, is much more likely to be on top of Ghani's agenda. Though predictions in-regard to the Afghan economy is speculative at this stage, nonetheless the symbolism attached to the withdrawal will have direct consequences on the fragile sense of security inside and outside Afghanistan. The probability of investment relocations, rise in investment reluctancy in the business sector and a slowdown in the service sector ––which has been built with heavy dependency on the presence of foreign forces and expats––is very high.
Further, in terms of security, both candidates have announced that they would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. As far as the peace-talks with the Taliban are concerned, both candidates would make maximum effort simply because exclusions politics have proven to be deleterious for peace and stability in the region. Still it is widely assumed by many inside Afghanistan that building good relations with the Taliban will be easier for Ghani than for Abdullah because of the Pashtun question.
Security-wise, it can be expected that both candidates will emphasize and prioritize on building strong relations with the neighboring countries and regional powers rather than focusing too much on global powers. This drives from the simple logic that Afghanistan's neighbors have often played a much more significant part in creating and supporting proxies leading to inner-Afghan tensions and conflicts.
But the bottom-line, that many Afghans inside and outside Afghanistan are emphasizing on––one that cannot be exaggerated enough––, is that the biggest achievement of the last 13 years has been that nearly 60 % of the eligible Afghan population came out to vote. Even warlords, like Gulbudeen Hekmatyar, encouraged people to vote. This, and the fact that process went on relatively peaceful and transparent, that the constitution was respected and that Afghans took ownership of their democratization process, sheds some hope at a time when many fear that most of what has been achieved since the fall of the Taliban might go in vain.
The views expressed in this Op-Ed are those of its author and not representative of TOLOnews.