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Ahead Of Presidential Vote, Afghan Political Forces Divide Along Ethnic Lines

Members of the Afghan Electoral Alliance meeting in August.
As candidates for next year's presidential election in Afghanistan prepare to register, two political alliances have emerged that indicate the race could split along mainly ethnic lines.

Last week (September 5) saw the arrival on the scene of the National Understanding Forum, an alliance of about 10 political parties that vows to bring together prominent technocrats and former warlords mainly from the Pashtun community, the country's largest ethnic group.

That news followed the August 29 launch of the Afghanistan Electoral Alliance, a self-described "grand coalition" that consists of a dozen political groups that hail predominantly from the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek minorities. Membership is based loosely on the former Northern Alliance coalition that backed the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001.

A third political alliance -- albeit more regional -- has also entered the scene. The Afghanistan Eastern People's Alliance, consisting of lawmakers and tribal elders from eastern Afghanistan, was formed on September 8.

The two given the greatest chance to shape the election -- the National Understanding Forum and the Afghanistan Electoral Alliance -- have pledged respectively to put aside ethnic and personality politics and build a new culture of consensus. But each has also failed to align behind a single candidate.

The April 5 presidential vote is seen as vital to Afghanistan's stability and security, particularly with the majority of foreign combat troops expected to withdraw by the end of 2014. Presidential hopefuls are required to register as candidates from September 16 to October 6. Official campaigning begins in December.

'Ethnic Polarization'

Waliullah Rahmani, the director of the Kabul-based Center for Strategic Studies, says the makeup of the two coalitions has exposed the polarization of Afghan politics along ethnic lines.

"The alliances for the 2014 presidential election are mostly characterized by ethnicity," he said. "Ethnocentric politics has been a dominant discourse in Afghanistan for the past 12 years and I believe that in the 2014 election ethnocentric alignments will play a major and important role."

The National Understanding Forum is led by Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani, a Pashtun who is a current parliamentarian from eastern Afghanistan and the son of a former mujahedin leader. The group has not fully revealed its membership but is trying to recruit other prominent Pashtun figures, such as Qayum Karzai, the brother of outgoing President Hamid Karzai; Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former interior minister; Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq; and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Key figures in the Afghanistan Electoral Alliance include the runner-up in the 2009 presidential vote, Abdullah Abdullah; Ahmad Zia Masud, a former vice president and brother of legendary Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masud; General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former ethnic Uzbek militia leader; Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh Province; and influential Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqeq.

The Afghanistan Electoral Alliance initially tried to recruit prominent Pashtuns -- including those now sought by the National Understanding Forum -- but they were unable to find common ground.

More Or Less Centralization?

One key difference between the two larger alliances when it comes to governing philosophy centers on the distribution of power. Many members of the Afghanistan Electoral Alliance have called for a decentralized government, with more authority given to the provinces.

Pashtun leaders, who hold a dominant presence in the halls of power in Kabul, strongly oppose the idea.

The Afghanistan Electoral Alliance's Masud says he has not given up hope that he can lure Pashtun leaders from across the country to bolster the alliance's election chances. "Our brothers who live in the south and also to the east -- in Kunar and Nangarhar -- will soon hold a grand meeting to join us," he was quoted as saying by Afghan media on September 4.

Rahmani expects the next president of Afghanistan will be a Pashtun, the ethnic group that has traditionally ruled the country.

"The major players on the ground see a Pashtun president and non-Pashtuns [to serve] as vice presidents and other key players," he said. "I think Afghanistan is still not ready to accept [that] a non-Pashtun president could emerge."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.