Afghanistan Elections: Challenges and Opportunities

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent & Middle East Issues

The general elections for Afghanistan’s new president and local councils were held in the war-torn country on Saturday, April 5, 2014, and were marked with special challenges and important consequences. The unprecedentedly widespread participation of Afghan women and the young people, which had been made possible through such modern means of communication as Facebook and Twitter social networks as well as the SMS, was considered a very important development in a country that is still heavily dependent on traditions and under heavy pressure of a tribal way of thinking. One of the most important problems faced in these elections was shortage of ballots in those constituencies where Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate of Reform and Solidarity bloc was supposed to garner the highest number of votes. This issue is considered important in that it has already caused doubts about the integrity of the elections during the ballot counting and subsequent announcement of final results. As a consequence, there were speculations about possible vote rigging, similar to accusations that were raised during 2004 elections. At the same time, if for any reasons, the election results contradict the expectations of women and the young generation that is seeking changes in the Afghan society, the country may enter a more dangerous phase of political, ethnic and social tensions. Such tensions, if escalated, are potentially capable of kindling the flames of a civil ethnic and religious war and may even lead to the disintegration of Afghanistan along ethnic lines.

At any rate, the most positive aspect of the elections was its effective management by Afghans without any interference from foreign forces. This happened despite frequent threats by the Taliban group who threatened to kill anybody that took part in the elections. Holding elections and providing the security of elections were the main concerns of the Afghan government and security forces. However, through their widespread participation in the elections, the Afghan people said a big “nay” to extremist groups, especially the Taliban, and proved that they will not allow the Taliban to renew its power under any circumstances. At the same time, however, the elections proved beyond any doubt that how difficult it is for Afghanistan to complete its transition from a centralist power structure, which is characterized by ethnic exclusionism of Pashtuns and ideological exclusionism of the Taliban, to a more balanced ethnic and religious power structure, which would give the highest priority to meritocracy and create an atmosphere in which non-Pashtun candidates would be able to compete with Pashtun candidates under the calm atmosphere of free, democratic, fair and transparent elections. From a strategic viewpoint, this aspect of the presidential and local council elections in Afghanistan is of the highest importance to the Islamic Republic of Iran, other far and near neighbors of Afghanistan and, at a higher level, the global powers.

At present, it can be assumed that the future outlook for peace, stability and development in Afghanistan depends on the approach that both the government as well as official and unofficial opposition groups will take to these elections and their consequences. This means that if the exclusionist tendency of the Pashtun ethnic group as well as ideological exclusionism of the Taliban, who are also of Pashtun origin, are not adapted to new conditions, there will be a high risk for the resurgence of a serious ethnic crisis in the country. It will be more so if the vote count and final result of the elections lead to disillusionment of non-Pashtun ethnic groups and prompt, for example, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah to refuse the election results that would not be in line with the general expectations in the society. Under such a scenario, the possibility of intense ethnic and religious rivalries in Afghanistan will be greatly increased. On the other hand, such state of affairs will have the potential to affect the neighboring countries of Afghanistan as well. Possible ethnic division in Afghanistan will pit Pashtuns, on the one side, against non-Pashtuns, including Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara Shias, on the other side. In parallel to such domestic developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, to some extent, Turkey, which collectively play a part in Afghanistan’s developments, will possibly take sides with Pashtuns. On the other hand, Iran, India and some countries in Central Asia will find themselves obliged to takes sides with non-Pashtun ethnic groups, which seek to see changes in the country’s power structure. In fact, the presidential and local council elections in Afghanistan will most probably face the Afghan society with serious challenges at two general levels and through two mechanisms:

1. By pitting the mental construct of the country’s ethnic and traditional power structure against a modern mentality of power; and
2. By pitting such traditional social institutions as Loya Jirga against such modern social institutions like the country’s parliament.

Since ethnic factors are breeding grounds for these challenges, it is quite possible that one of the traditionalist or reformist sides would not accept the announced results of the elections and find fault with, for example, the way that the votes have been counted. Such a development will practically face the next Afghan government with legitimacy crisis and will cause practical problems for the peaceful transfer of power in the country. Such a state of affairs will be mostly beneficial to the United States and the NATO as it will prove the necessity for the Afghan government to sign the controversial security agreement with Washington, which will pave the way for the continued military presence of the United States in Afghanistan. Even under the present circumstances, most presidential candidates have clearly indicated their willingness to sign the security pact with the United States. Another important issue is the continuation of a centralized power structure purported by the incumbent government of President Hamid Karzai, which is also supported by Pashtun ethnic group. Maintaining such a structure would be possible through the election win of Zalmai Rasoul or Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. At the same time, the reformist faction, which has promoted Abdullah Abdullah as its presidential candidate, seeks a new power structure based on the distribution of power among various provinces. Anyway, the most important consideration for Iran is to see a powerful central government in Kabul free from ethnic and religious tendencies which would be elected through a democratic and legitimate process. Such a situation will be more in line with the Islamic Republic’s strategic interests than possible disintegration of Afghanistan or the continuation of the ethnic monopoly on power.

Key Words: Afghanistan Elections, Challenges and Opportunities, Abdullah Abdullah, Taliban, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara Shias, Pashtuns, Non-Pashtuns, Iran, Loya Jirga, Mollazehi

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*Photo Credit: IRNA, Khabarpana