Afghan Elections: Ethnically Determined?

The third presidential election in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban is momentous on numerous counts: Afghan forces are securing the elections, the first round of which took place on the 5th of April, with little to no international military support; the elections represent the state’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power; and ethnic divides are not enough to decide the outcome and aftermath of the polls. These conditions seem to set the stage for a home-grown democratic change in leadership.

Image courtesy of Todd Huffman, ©2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Todd Huffman, ©2009, some rights reserved.

Although incumbent President Hamid Karzai still holds much sway, having served two terms since 2001, he is constitutionally barred from standing in the elections again, and the candidates that were on the ballot on the 5th of April were forced to form coalitions across ethnic divides in order to have a chance at gaining the 50% vote count necessary to win the election. As it appears now, it is likely that a second round in the elections will occur with whispers that the two out of the eleven candidates that will pass on to the second round will be Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister under Hamid Karzai and the only serious candidate outside of Afghanistan’s Pashtun ethnic group and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former finance minister and world bank official. At this point, it is likely the present elections will definitely involve a transfer of power; but its success will ultimately depend not only on the outcome of the election, but also on whether the government of the elected leader can prevent insurgency stemming from ensuing ethnic discrepancies. With Ghani and Abdullah pinned against each other, it will be important for Abdullah to gain a key Pashtun following in order to ensure that ethnic discrepancies do not compromise his potential as a candidate once the ballot narrows to two.

The question of ethnicity will also play a major role in the aftermath of the elections. If any one party feels marginalised, particularly from Afghanistan’s Pashtun population whom the Taliban derives much of their support from, there is a strong risk of unintended ethnic disenfranchisement that could lead to a renewed insurgency. These factors have not yet played out, as firstly, the first round of elections saw eleven candidates on the ballot attempting to form coalitions in hopes of gaining the majority necessary to win the election; and secondly, the question of whether internal factions within parties will hold sustainably and cordially post-elections is yet to be determined.

There are more differences to this 2014 election compared with the last than the makeup of the candidates and their respective supporting parties. The body of voters is not only larger—at nearly 60%—but also includes a much wider array of stakeholders. According to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, since voter registration started nearly a year ago, 2.5 million names were added to the electoral roll and over half of these were women. Although women have had suffrage since the 1960s when the Constitution was first written, the visibility of women not only voting but also taking positions on the ballot offers positive signs that women are taking an active role in the running of the country. Other stakeholders include youth and adults with an active interest in not just private education but public education, as these state-run educational institutions are part and parcel with the set of changes that will push Afghanistan forward into a process of nation-building that is truly independent. The high voter turnout represents recognition of this.

Even though the stakeholders of the election cover a greater spread now than prior to 2001 and prospects for, if not dramatic, steady changes in policy are surfacing, the issue of the ethnicity and ethnic tensions within the government is not outmoded. Although the elections for now seem strategically driven, in the medium- and long-term ethnic divides may resurface, destabilising the nation and making obsolete whatever progress may occur. Afghans should not allow the fragility of the country to keep the majority from surging forward in the fight for better health, education, and living conditions; but should nevertheless understand that a revitalised ethnic insurgency is a possibility and take every measure appropriate to keep these tensions calm.