The frenzied phase of registration for the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan ended Sunday with more names on the roster than expected, more last-minute horse-trading than anticipated, and more questions than answers about what is already shaping up to be a hectic but vibrant process leading up to the critical ballot next April.
Nominee registration began as a trickle and ended as a deluge of presidential hopefuls submitting their paperwork. Finally, 26 men and one woman -- some known political figures, others untested -- presented their running mates (consisting of 45 men and 9 women), and took advantage of the media glare to present their core campaign slogans to millions of enthused, but bewildered Afghans on live television.
Of the 27 candidates, it is expected that some aspirants will be disqualified by mid-November for failing to meet eligibility conditions -- which include putting down a hefty registration deposit and submitting 100,000 eligible voter endorsement cards -- most probably resulting in a shortlist of no more than half a dozen serious tickets.
The biggest challenge in an overcrowded field will be to engage in another cycle of coalition building during or after elections to strengthen team-building and to realign agendas and policies that are not fundamentally contradictory or contrary.
The Karzai factor
Most contenders tried until the last minute to form multi-ethnic tickets, at times breaking up their own fragile alliances, to garner support from perceived owners of both small and large "voter banks." Some seem to have succeeded, others seemingly not, and the rest had to contend with leftover constituencies that might not tilt the balance in their favor after all.
However, after months of political wrangling and chai-sipping, what is certain is that while the Afghan political arena may look dynamic and lively on the surface, in essence it is more fragmented and mismatched than at any other time in the past decade.
Part of the reason lies with President Hamid Karzai who has ruled the country for the past twelve years, and the inner clique he has relied upon to do his bidding. Karzai, masterful at domestic political intrigue and maneuvering, and consumed by his own future political leverage, legacy, and place in history, is eager to be the ultimate kingmaker in next year's presidential vote.
More importantly, although Karzai believes he has transcended ethnic and factional lines, he has publicly shown disdain for organized political movements and resisted any attempt to promote and nurture democratic party-based politics over the years. With encouragement from his loyalists and key members of his family, he has applied clan-style politics at the national level, relying largely on tribal and local power-brokers with monetary and factional influence.
Although this approach appears to have served him well, it has increasingly undermined the professionalization of politics, where a constitutional order underpinned by platform-based political activity could flourish.
Additionally, there are indications that Karzai may have overplayed his hand with regard to the 2014 elections, and inadvertently facilitated the formation of a muddled setting that may undermine his own legitimate aspirations. There are real fears among Afghan political elites that Karzai could be urged by his cronies to attempt at influencing the election process, in less obvious and more subtle ways than the 2009 presidential election debacle, should the outcome of the vote not tilt in their favor.
Although the president once again reiterated on Monday that he will remain impartial and will not allow government interference in electoral matters, Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province, alleged later that same day that the president's camp had a few days back offered him a "blank check," along with the top vice presidential position, to secure his support for Karzai's candidate of choice.
Karzai now has to make do with a fragmented polity and too many horses in the running, most of whom may engage in destructive mud-slinging. More significantly, in the event that no winner emerges with the 50%+1 requirement in the first round of voting, Karzai can stealthily orchestrate a major showdown during the second round by forcing re-alignments, perhaps even tapping into Taliban and external pools of support.
This calculation might explain not only his fixation on courting the Taliban, but also his reluctance to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, even though most Afghans are in favor of seeing the document finalized.
While Karzai has always raised the specter of foreign meddling in the elections, it is, in fact, the domestic wheeling and dealing and infringement mechanisms on the election, through election commissioners he recently appointed and ballot box handlers, that Afghans dread the most.
Frantic realignment and mismatched tickets
However, Karzai is not the only reason for the initial disarray of the nomination process. The other major factor is the flimsiness of ideological and conceptual politics, where the nexus of collaboration lies less with shared ideas, values and policies, and more with interest-driven horse-trading and deal-making at the expense of marginalizing the Afghan people.
This may seem natural in the Afghan context, but when coupled with the insurgency that rankles from one side, and public disenchantment caused by widespread corruption and ineptness on the other, the many candidate choices -- not too dissimilar in terms of their views and past records in most cases - may cause some Afghans to stay away from casting a vote. All key contenders must therefore take voters apathy seriously into account and regain the electorate's trust by engaging in a healthy race.
The dissolution of a number of so-called political alliances at the 11th hour on Sunday also demonstrates the fragility of coalition-building and the weakness of political groupings to gel and offer a common policy platform.
At the end of the day, harsh political realities meant that ethnic voter banks were more valuable than ideological and policy commonalities.
The frantic realignment of political figures over the last few days has in some cases led to the creation of mismatched tickets, where not only old foes joined hands but even decentralization advocates coalesced with backers of a strong central government. It will require a great deal of work for several contenders and their running mates to tie together their visions that are largely incompatible, solidify new alignments, form platforms, and eventually manage a campaign, all in short order.
And, while there is a greater possibility of some fragmentation of voter banks along different ethnic and factional lines, the biggest challenge for vote bank owners will be to maintain the integrity of their followers' vote and ultimately avoid a backlash from their constituents.
Opportunities and prospects
Amid the ongoing mud-slinging, there is an opportunity before and during the campaign season for eligible and visionary candidates to develop their programs and agendas, build up electoral charisma, connect to the electorate, and offer the public real choices and solutions.
These presidential hopefuls need to realize that it is not enough to sign-up, spend money, make backdoor deals, and run in a less-than-transparent election to hold office.
The best choice for Karzai is to not tarnish his legacy, to truly remain impartial and prevent any official intrusion or the use of state resources in the elections.
The political class, especially the current leadership, has had a dismal record for listening to the people's voice. Now is the time to change the stale manner in which politics has been practiced by warlords, technocrats or amateur politicians, engage the electorate, and focus the debate on priority challenges facing the country during and after 2014.
The Afghan people, including the younger generation, expect more from their leaders.
As international security and development commitments diminish, and Afghanistan becomes more self-reliant, elections offer a unique opportunity for Afghans to elect a unifying and competent team that can offer better security prospects, more predictability in the social and economic spheres, more jobs and productivity, better governance, a believable justice system, and stable relations with Afghanistan's friends and allies.
There is no greater calling for contenders and voters than ensuring that the political transition and peaceful transfer of power take place on time, and be inclusive, acceptable and credible. Then it will be time to rise above politics and take the best interests of the country into account by accepting the results, work together and steer the country away from danger.
Omar Samad is a Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, and a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views reflected here are his own.
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