The South Asia Channel

Nine Key Questions for the Afghan Presidential Election

On April 5, Afghans will go to the polls to vote in an election that could result in the country's first democratic transfer of power. The country's two previous national election processes were extremely controversial, remembered more for the extensive fraud and detrimental deviations from the legal framework than as real symbols of democratic progress. As a result, there's been wide speculation that another bad election could be what finally makes Afghanistan's house of cards fall. In the lead up to this election, the international community and Afghan institutions have focused on improving the process, but while the country did adopt two new elections laws through democratic means -- no small feat in a country where most legislation is adopted through decree -- little progress was made on real fraud reduction strategies.

As we look forward to the election, there is real potential for a smoother process to occur, but it is far from a sure bet. Nine candidates are still vying to become Afghanistan's next president and if the process is ultimately successful, it will largely be a result of those candidates winning, or more importantly losing, gracefully.

While the field is still crowded, most analysts believe this is a three candidate race between 2009 runner up Abdullah Abdullah, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul. Whether this election will be a more democratic affair than Afghanistan's previous elections depends less on any administrative reforms that may have been implemented and more on whether Afghanistan's electoral authorities can manage a contentious process and how the politics pan out. A peaceful transfer of power to a new, non-Karzai administration depends on a few key questions.

1. Can a Pashtun consensus emerge before April 5?

Though a series of recent meetings in Kabul resulted in Qayum Karzai, current President Hamid Karzai's brother, dropping out in favor of Rassoul, there are many more Pashtun candidates that remain in the race. Ghani, the former World Bank official and presidential candidate, has done what President Karzai has asked of him lately, namely by overseeing the security handover from international to Afghan forces. That loyalty has not, however, won him Karzai's support.

Karzai has not formally endorsed a particular candidate and has gone to great lengths to assure observers that he will remain neutral. Most analysts, however, believe he prefers Rassoul, who recently stepped down as foreign minister to contest the election. Similarly, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, the country's longest-serving Minister of Defense, did not endorse another candidate when he withdrew from the race.

Lobbying to convince other candidates to withdraw will certainly continue up until election day, but as each day passes it is less likely that prominent Pashtun leaders in Afghanistan will come to a consensus on supporting one candidate.

Ghani and Rassoul are, in many respects, similar. They are both considered technocrats and more comfortable interacting on the international policy stage than in the arenas of Afghanistan's warlord-dominated politics. They are also both Pashtuns and are likely to be competing for the Pashtun vote in the southern and eastern parts of the country. While the race for first and second place will determine who will participate in a runoff, should no candidate receive more than 50 percent of the vote, it's really the race between the second and third candidates that will be the one to watch. If the margin between Ghani and Rassoul is close, the results tabulation process and the work of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) and Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC) to correct for any electoral fraud, may determine whether one of them will be participating in a runoff election to be Afghanistan's next president.

2. Can the IEC successfully manage a contentious results process?

Waiting for election results in Afghanistan is a far cry from the nearly real-time, Internet-accessible results we've become accustomed to in the United States. While the count is conducted on election day, the central tabulation and announcement of results take weeks and is announced like a slow drip. It is an extremely difficult process for the IEC to manage well and its ability to do so will go a long way towards determining the success of the first round. While the commission has made progress in improving its external relations since 2009, it's essential for the IEC to conduct the process transparently and communicate frequently and effectively with the candidates' campaigns and the national and international media. Failure to do so will fuel angst among the candidates and skepticism with the media, and create an unhelpful, negative, perception of the process for the Afghan public.

3. Will the IEC and IECC work as allies or as adversaries through the complaints adjudication process?

While the IEC tabulates results and investigates fraud based on predetermined triggers, the IECC will be responsible for adjudicating any complaints that have been submitted to the commission, either by citizens or candidates' campaigns. In the past, the IEC and IECC have often played a game of hot potato with the most contentious issues, particularly throughout the process of correcting for fraud. While the commissions should certainly operate independently, they should also communicate collaboratively to find solutions to problems that arise and decide on jurisdiction in a professional manner when such decisions need to be made.

5. Can fraud be better prevented?

It's no secret that past Afghan elections have been marred by widespread fraud and the IEC needs to take action to prevent a repeat event. Namely, the commission must continue to work with Afghan and international security forces to identify additional polling stations that are simply too insecure to open or risk them being controlled fraudulently in favor of a particular candidate. In addition, the IEC must implement better procedures for ballot control in order to prevent thousands of ballots being distributed to locations with only hundreds of voters.

While the IEC should take additional measures to prevent cheating, fraud reduction will depend more on the candidates' and the president's ability to control overzealous grassroots supporters and elders who are used to a different form of democracy. The candidates and the president must be committed to preventing fraud and vocal about their commitment if fraud is to be less of an issue in this election than it has been in the past. 

6. Will the Karzais rally the vote for Rassoul?

Again, Karzai has not officially endorsed any candidate, but most who follow Afghan politics believe he favors Rassoul. Qayum dropping out of the race will help Rassoul only if the Karzai family can actually get their supporters out to vote for him, particularly without the president's public endorsement. If the Karzais are, in fact, committed to Rassoul and can mobilize their supporters on his behalf, he could very well find himself competing in the runoff election.

7. Can other candidates be wildcards?

While most analysts believe this is a three candidate race, it's possible that candidates with regional or provincial appeal could win significant amounts of votes, should they remain in the race. Is it possible for Gul Agha Sherzai, the former governor of Nangahar, to do well in the eastern province he used to govern? Or could Ismael Khan, running as first vice president on Abdul Rasul Sayyaf's ticket, draw significant numbers of votes in Herat province, where he used to be governor, or with the Tajik population more generally? While these candidates are only likely to have marginal effects on the outcome, that may be all that's needed in a crowded field where only two candidates will continue to a runoff. 

8. Is the Karzai administration committed to a smooth transfer of power?

While some are wondering what Karzai's last act in office might be, it's really what he does to help facilitate a transition that will be his most important legacy for Afghanistan's immediate future. Afghanistan has never undertaken an administrative handover of power as a result of a democratic election and, regardless of the outcome, it will be challenging. Just how much immediate bureaucratic turnover will take place is unclear, but the Karzai administration should be ready to provide all assistance in handing over control of Afghanistan's government to the eventual victor.

9. Will Afghanistan's next president sign a bilateral security agreement?

There is an assumption within the U.S. government that it will be easier to negotiate a bilateral security agreement (BSA) with Afghanistan's next president. While the Afghan public generally supports such an agreement and many of the candidates have expressed their support, assuming that the next president will simply agree to U.S. demands overlooks the reality of Afghan politics. You can be certain that the first thing the new president of Afghanistan won't want to do is look like an instrument of the West and as somehow weaker than Karzai. While the next president of Afghanistan will likely sign a BSA, the Obama administration should be prepared to make public concessions to Afghanistan's next president if it wants the agreement to become reality.


Afghanistan has had a series of challenging elections over the past decade and that is what we should expect for a nascent democracy. Despite whatever imperfections may come to characterize this upcoming election, we should not diminish the importance of the potential for the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history. That is the ultimate measure of success for this election process: can a new leader, democratically elected, with a credibility granted by the people of Afghanistan through the ballot box, emerge to lead his country? If the answer to that question is yes, as we all hope it will be, Afghanistan will have taken the most critical step to date in its challenging transition.

Jed Ober is the Director of Programs at Democracy International.

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