The South Asia Channel

Of Afghan football and politics

The Afghan national football (soccer) team's spectacular South Asian championship win last week crystalized Afghan patriotic feelings and rallied the country together in a celebratory joy unseen in decades. With a renewed sense of optimism, Afghans are now eager to see their political leaders score a win in next year's presidential and provincial elections as well.

As the critical three-week long candidate registration period kicked off Monday, apathy is slowly giving way to curiosity mixed with concern to see that the presidential elections are held on time, according to basic tenants of fairness and transparency, and involve fresh thinking.

Registration and Support for elections

Compared to the botched 2009 elections, the conditions and candidate criteria set for next April's poll are more stringent. Nominees have to submit at least 100,000 eligible voter card endorsements from more than 22 of the country's 34 provinces, and deposit close to $18,000 with the Independent Election Commission.

Overall, more than 1.2 million new voters have been registered so far (of whom at least 28% are women), and that number is expected to double by the end of the registration period in October. This is in addition to more than 12 million who are known to be holding old voter cards, some of which are known to be counterfeit.

A new survey conducted in five provinces and released this week shows that depending on security conditions, popular enthusiasm for taking part in the elections stands at 79 percent, and overwhelmingly Afghans consider elections as the most credible system for choosing the country's leadership. The survey also reveals that only six percent are in favor of a religious figure re-establishing an "emirate," while just eight percent support a consensus system determined by holding a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly.

As the registration process continues, all eyes will be on the front-runners that might emerge over the next three weeks. Then, the focus will shift to the electoral ticket formations, each composed of a trio (the presidential contender and two vice presidential running mates), before the five-months long campaign starts in earnest.

Afghans are not certain whether a credible team that is less beholden to ethnic and patronage configurations, and more to aptitude and integrity, could emerge in the weeks ahead. Credibility is not only reflected in the inclusive nature of a ticket, but also in its ability to connect to the electorate and offer a program containing fixes to the country's numerous challenges.

Politicking

Given the level of political intrigue surrounding team-building and the partially dubious management of the electoral process, the questions preoccupying many Afghans today are whether a competent and committed team will emerge before the winter campaign season kicks off, and whether it will be able to overcome the intrusive nature of political forces who favor business-as-usual.

While coalition-building is seen as a positive development -- even if not fully inclusive -- three recent events have raised eyebrows and questions about the veracity of the process ahead: 1) the less-than transparent manner in which 15 candidates (five of whom were appointed by Karzai on Monday) were initially selected for seats on the all-important Election Complaints Commission after a civil society nominee was stonewalled; 2) the sudden dismissal of five high-ranking Ministry of Interior officials by a new acting minister, who had himself until recently expressed a desire to run for the country's top job; and 3) President Hamid Karzai's meaningful hint during a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a regional conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan last week when he pointed to Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul as a future candidate, thereby reaffirming his favorite choice.

Afghan politicians consider this move a breach of Karzai's public pledge not to interfere in the process, beyond casting his own vote.

Emerging contestants and electability

While Rassoul is viewed as the most benign of all potential candidates, other political actors will not only question Karzai's remarks, but will also have to scramble to re-align themselves because of the financial and patronage networks that will be put in place to back the president's choice.

Meanwhile, a list of potential candidates who may enter the fray is emerging, and they represent four types of contenders:

  • Known entities with multi-regional grassroots support, strong backing by known constituencies, and potential access to funds.
  • Usual suspects with narrower regional appeal both at the grassroots and constituency levels, but with potential access to finances, who either need the support of strongmen or existing patronage networks.
  • Proxy contenders with or without a popular base, primarily reliant on patronage networks and funding.
  • Opportunists, adventurers, and 15-minute fame seekers with minimal support and whose principal aim is deal-making.

There is no doubt that ethnicity and regionalism are still elementary factors in Afghan politics, besides access to financial and patronage assets, but based on lessons-learned from the past half century of turbulence, there is also an emerging public view, especially among the intelligentsia and youth, that the country needs to be run by individuals and teams who possess the following qualities and skills, in relative terms:

  • Be a unifier with national standing.
  • Believe in inclusivity and the constitutional order.
  • Believe in civic and ethical values in governance.
  • Possess experience and leadership abilities.
  • Be a team player and reformer.

Since perceptions may differ about presidential aspirants, the role of running mates will be crucial in the elections. Every contender today is seeking to recruit the heavyweights from among a handful of individuals who can boost their chances of winning, either as owners of voter banks, or as financiers, or both.

Coalitions of convenience?

Whereas political parties are still in their infancy and political platforms have yet to mature, contestants have resorted to unprecedented levels of discourse -- both private and public -- and traditional coalition building. The most notable group so far is the Electoral Alliance, made up of political strongmen -- predominantly from non-Pashtun regions of the country -- that have played a role in the ups-and-downs Afghanistan has experienced since the 1980s. This amalgam has considerable political heft but might crumble under its own weight if its members do not agree on a single ticket or expand their reach by joining hands with smaller Pashtun-led opposition groups.

These coalitions represent the dissatisfied and sidelined lobbies that have come together as a result of Karzai's brinkmanship over the last decade, while other alliances are emerging, mostly on the Pashtun side, from a hodge-podge of technocrats, former mujahedeen, and even royalists. These groupings are susceptible to pressure from both ends and will need to decide soon whether they will side with the status quo or offer the electorate a new alternative by coming to terms with other groupings such as the Electoral Alliance. However, Karzai may also opt to break all opposition alliances one more time, either through political recruitment or divide-and-rule tactics.

From specter of fraud to hope

Aside from the threat of violence from the Taliban, the most catastrophic scenario for the Afghan political class and the 79 percent of Afghans who are eager to participate in legitimate elections is the specter of fraud similar to what experienced in 2009.

Despite numerous public assurances from Karzai that he is committed to a relatively fair and transparent election, and that he will not allow interference by national and local authorities in the process, there are serious concerns that the ruling clique is not prepared to submit to the people's will and may be tempted to subvert the process.

If that happens, history will blame Karzai for what comes next.

Karzai understands that his legacy and immunity rest on the manner in which the elections are held. Therefore he should aim to be the defender of the country's democratic values, and refuse to allow anyone to dash the hopes of millions of Afghans who, with much hope, bravery and enthusiasm, first voted him into office in 2004.

That is what is expected of a national team leader, as Afghanistan's prized footballers so successfully demonstrated last week.

Omar Samad is a Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, the President of Silkroad Consulting, and a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

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