NEW DELHI: Afghanistan’s fourth Presidential election goes ahead on September 28 after two delays and a currently cancelled U.S.-Taliban peace deal. A 18-candidate race is now down to 15, though, those who have withdrawn will still be on the ballots, which have already been printed. Like in 2014, the polls are seen as a two-horse race between President Ashraf Ghani and his Chief Executive in the so-called National Unity Government, Dr Abdullah Abdullah. Two days before the vote, in an interview to RFE/RL, the President, though, ruled out any power sharing if he wins. The biggest drop-out is Hanif Atmar, National Security Adviser to President Ashraf Ghani until 2018, with his team fragmenting to support the two top contenders. Zalmai Rasoul, a former foreign minister and National Security Advisor under President Hamid Karzai, and Shaida Abdali, the last Ambassador to India have also withdrawn to join President Ghani.
In the first round of polls, 50 per cent plus one vote is needed for an outright win. If that doesn’t happen, as it hasn’t in the past, a second-round with only the top two is currently scheduled to take place on November 23. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) plans the preliminary result declaration for October 19. But, again, in the past, results have been announced much after they were supposed to be. Almost 9.7 million Afghans have registered to vote, but October 2018 parliamentary elections saw only about 3 million vote in a process that was contested for months with accusations of vote-rigging and bribery.
Just over 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population lives under government control, about 11 percent live under Taliban control, and the remainder live in “contested” territory, according to a January 2019 report of the Special Inspector General for Afghan
Reconstruction (SIGAR). The Taliban has issued 3 statements warning of attacks and threatening Afghans who don’t boycott voting. A suicide bombing outside a campaign rally for President Ghani earlier this month killed 26, an attack at an office issuing voter identification documents wounded nine, and a bomb that detonated outside a hospital killed 39. The President’s First Vice Presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh escaped an assassination attempt in Kabul in July. With security a major concern, the Interior Ministry has deployed 72,000 security force personnel with an additional 20,000 to 30,000 strong-force in reserve. The IEC says given insecurity and logistical problems, only 5,373 polling centres of the normal 7,366 will function. The IEC has also registered 20,500 party agents, 13,800 civil society, 7000 media and 174 international observers. But, as in the past urban, safe areas will see a concentration of most observers with remote, insecure areas being thinly monitored.
The Afghan government is using biometrics such as fingerprint, eye and facial recognition technology. But, in the 2018 parliamentary polls, poorly trained polling staff were unable to operate it.
With U.S. President Donald Trump calling off talks with the Taliban, polls could give the next government a stronger hand when they resume. Gautam Mukhopadhaya who served as Charge d’affaires in Kabul in 2001-02, and India’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2010–13 tells SNI, “There will be an elected government, maybe new, maybe the old government in some form or the other. That will refresh the legitimacy of both the constitution and the government. That will provide the basis for Afghan-led talks with the Taliban.” He agrees there are security concerns and worries about free and fair elections. But adds, “We can’t use that as an argument to nullify elections. These are defects that we have to live with and correct institutionally. It’s also a test on how much the Taliban actually controls. Areas where voting takes place is a barometer for an Afghan Republic as opposed to an Emirates. In many ways it’s a referendum on that.”
In election week, several politicians including ex-President Hamid Karzai have criticised the polls. Ashraf Ghani’s predecessor told the Associated Press polls are bound to plunge Afghanistan deeper into violence.
Keen observers though tell SNI, “Elections are a constitutional necessity. With all its flaws and regardless of the victor, they are the only public test of who the Afghan people will entrust the immediate challenges Afghanistan faces (notably the peace process), to. They cannot be held hostage to contingent issues let alone waiting for peace and an end to foreign interference in Afghanistan that will take time under any scenario.” An analyst also says, the attempt coming 5 days before it polls, “sounds, more in tune with foreign efforts to set up an interim government to bring in the Taliban and/or deny victory to an expected winner whoever that may be”.
Current Indian National Security Advisory Board(NSAB) member and India’s Envoy to Afghanistan from 2013-2016 Amar Sinha hopes for a high turnout, telling SNI, “It is essential that each Afghan comes out to vote and make the vote count.” Adding, “It’s a great responsibility on the election commission to ensure a fair and transparent electoral process since it is the expression of the people’s will. It is also the duty of the government to provide security to maximize participation.”
Ex Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Vivek Katju, though, feels elections won’t make a significant difference to the situation. He tells SNI , “ The Taliban will not recognise any post poll government, like they don’t even now. So where does that leave the ‘peace process?’, he asks.
The Afghan Government has a clear position on that process. President Ghani’s spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi in an interview to SNI in August said a clear government redline is the Republic, negating the Taliban demand for a return to an Emirate. He concluded, “Elections have many enemies, but matter to the people. The President has constitutional obligations to the electorate. We can’t cut this process that began in 2001. We can’t go back to pre-2001 when there were no elections and groups could enforce themselves on the people.”
Saad Mohseni, the founder of the Moby group, which also owns the largest Afghan private TV network Tolo News though fears the polls will be contentious and will further fragment the country. He also questions whether either President Ghani or Dr Abdullah can get the 50 per cent plus one vote in the first round to win outright, adding, “Afghanistan can’t afford another fraudulent poll process. (U.S. Secretary of State) Pompeo won’t do a Kerry.” He is referring to a close vote in 2014, after which, Afghanistan was plunged into months of political crisis that narrowly avoided violent clashes. Although the pact between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah achieved a peaceful transition of power, both men blame that arrangement for stalled progress in many areas, and both have said they will not accept a similar compromise again.
As an Afghan Dari proverb goes-There is a road to the top of even the highest mountain- but after four decades of war and conflict, the question is how long is that road and how long will it take to reach the top of the mountain.