Presidential campaigning in Afghanistan began last Sunday amid continuing violence and political uncertainty in a country that has been in conflict for the past four decades. Only President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah were able to kick off their campaign rallies. All others are yet to officially begin their campaigns. There are 18 presidential hopefuls, but only three — Ghani, Abdullah and former National Security Adviser Haneef Atmar — are significant.
Looking at the composition of the tickets and ethnic loyalties in Afghanistan’s electoral politics, it is very likely there will be a run-off. In that situation, the defeated candidates will join one of the two frontrunners. Drawing on experience from the 2014 presidential election, this one may well be fraught with complexities and allegations and counter-allegations of fraud and rigging by the competing candidates.
The election is scheduled to be held in late September. The timing is critical due to the ongoing peace process between the US and the Taliban, which looks likely to bring about a deal. US President Donald Trump is intent on withdrawing his troops well ahead of the 2020 presidential election, as he promised during his 2016 campaign. The US seems to be in a real hurry that some kind of agreement is reached with the Taliban based on two points: The US withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in return for commitment and guarantees from the Taliban that Afghan soil will not be used against the US. An agreement in principle was reached in previous rounds of negotiations and is likely to be formalized soon.
Even if an initial agreement is reached between the US and the Taliban, two other key points — a ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue — are yet to be agreed on. The Taliban have consistently rejected direct talks with the Afghan government as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. However, once the initial agreement is reached, there is a strong likelihood the Taliban will agree to sit with the Afghan government for talks. Some analysts believe the upcoming presidential polls may be postponed in view of the possible peace deal and an interim government may be established with the participation of the Taliban. Such uncertainties have led to a general lack of public interest in the upcoming vote. However, Ghani’s administration has repeatedly rejected the idea of any interim setup instead of the planned election.
The key question is what is Afghanistan’s priority? Is it peace, an election or both? While elections are a regular exercise of the democratic process, peace is a vital need for Afghans. Many Afghans think there would be no harm if the election was further delayed for the sake of a peace deal with the insurgents. However, postponing the election would have an adverse impact on the political stability of the country. The leaders of the national unity government believe an elected government will be in a much stronger position to sit at the negotiating table with the Taliban.
One of the major threats to the upcoming presidential polls is the nonstop violence that has been taking the lives of a large number of civilians, as well as Afghan security forces and the insurgents. The government will have to take extra measures to ensure the election is peaceful, otherwise, the credibility of the polls will be questionable.
The Afghanistan Independent Election Commission must ensure its neutrality so that a free and fair election is held. It must provide a level-playing field for all candidates. Ghani and Abdullah have the advantage of being in government and running as candidates but there is nothing untoward about this, as Afghanistan’s constitution does not call for any interim setup before holding an election. It somehow resembles the American form of government but is no match to an established democracy like the US, with its strong institutions that ensure an election’s transparency and legitimacy. Being a young democracy, Afghanistan’s institutions are still evolving, but it is important to set good examples by preventing the irregularities that occurred during the last parliamentary election.
Whoever wins the upcoming presidential election — if it does go ahead — must ensure that bringing peace is the topmost priority. Without peace, any exercise of democracy will be meaningless for Afghans.
Ajmal Shams, based in Kabul, is head of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party. He was a deputy minister in the national unity government and served as policy adviser to Ashraf Ghani before his presidential bid. Twitter: @ajmshams