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Afghan Parties Jockey For Power Ahead Of Presidential Vote

Ahmad Zia Masud (from left), Abdul Rashid Dostum, Salahuddin Rabbani, Atta Mohammad Noor, Mohammad Mohaqiq, Abdullah Abdullah, and Mohammad Yunus Qanuni pray at a meeting in Kabul on August 29.
Rival powerbrokers and political parties in Afghanistan have begun jockeying for power ahead of next year's crucial presidential vote, which promises to see the first-ever democratic transition of power in the country.

With the registration of candidates just weeks away, competing political figures and groups have been engaged in closed-door meetings to form alliances and choose candidates they hope can take them to victory in the election, slated for April 5.

The Afghanistan Electoral Alliance is the latest coalition to emerge on the scene. The alliance, consisting of a dozen opposition political groups, announced in Kabul on August 29 that it had formed a "grand coalition" that would select a single candidate to run in the election.

But doubts have already been raised as to whether the group can successfully put their rivalries aside and unite behind a common cause. Despite weeks of secret negotiations, the alliance failed to enter the political scene with a consensus candidate. Its attempts to lure prominent figures from across Afghanistan's ethnic and ideological divide also broke down.

The presidential election 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. Western leaders have warned that billions of dollars in aid will not materialize unless the election is credible. The election will choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who is barred from running for a third term under the Afghan Constitution.

Presidential hopefuls are required to register as candidates between September 16 to October 6, and official campaigning begins in December.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, says there is little reason to believe the alliance will succeed in setting aside their differences and uniting under a common aim.

"There are too many strong figures in this coalition who will assume that they will be the No. 1 [candidate], and that will be the breaking point in the end," Ruttig says. "There's not yet this political culture in Afghanistan where people are ready to take a step back and say, 'Okay, I'm not doing it and I'm not the No. 1 because it's better for unity.'"

No Unity, No Candidate

The Afghanistan Electoral Alliance consists of many former warlords and militia commanders of the former Northern Alliance coalition that overthrew the Taliban regime with U.S. help in 2001. Members of the alliance hail predominantly from the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek minorities.

Key figures in the alliance include 2009 runner-up 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.

But prominent technocrats and leaders from the Pashtun community, the largest ethnic group, have opted not to join. They include Qayum Karzai, the president's brother; 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.

Abdullah was quoted by the Afghan media on August 29 as saying, "We will continue the new coalition, even if we have not reached an agreement with them, because it's a question of the destiny of the country and everyone has the right to express their views."

Ryan Evans, assistant director at the Center for the National Interest, a nonpartisan public-policy institution based in Washington, notes there have been numerous attempts at forging political coalitions in Afghanistan in the past, but most have failed.

In the case of the mujahedin parties -- which came to power after defeating the Soviet Union and the Afghan communist government in the early 1990s -- they splintered along ethnic lines and sparked a devastating civil war.

"Afghan political history is full of ambitious coalitions that bring together leaders, once at each other's throats, toward a common goal," Evans says. "And every single one of these coalitions -- including a few that have involved some of these same men -- fall apart, often violently. I hope they break the cycle, but I doubt they will."

A Very Dark Horse?

The formation of the Afghanistan Electoral Alliance comes amid reports that another coalition is taking shape.

Outgoing President Karzai has said he will remain impartial in the vote and will not declare his support for any candidate. But reports have emerged of secret meetings between the president's camp and prominent political figures to determine their own consensus candidate for the election.

There are reports that he will support Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an ethnic Pashtun and former warlord. Sayyaf, often credited as the man who brought Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan, is accused by rights groups of war atrocities. He has not commented on the speculation that he may run for president.
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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.