In Depth

Afghanistan election: who will win?

The country’s fragile democracy to be put to the test amid stalled peace talks

Fears of violence and fraud have marked the run-up to Afghanistan’s presidential election this weekend, which takes place against a backdrop of stalled peace talks and concerns over a Taliban takeover.

News reports suggest that the election on Saturday could derail the peace process in Afghanistan, which has slowed in recent months following erratic behaviour by both US President Donald Trump and the Taliban.

As a result, the current situation in Afghanistan is dire, with the two negotiating teams having failed to find much common ground after more than a year of talks. In early September, Trump declared the peace talks “dead” after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a deadly attack in Kabul, the BBC reports.

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai is one of the most outspoken critics of the election, telling reporters this week that holding the vote now “is like asking a heart patient to run a marathon” and could prompt terrorist attacks by the Taliban, which has denounced the election and told fellow Afghans not to vote, says Al Jazeera.

“This is no time for elections,” Karzai said. “We cannot conduct elections in a country that is going through a foreign-imposed conflict. We are in a war of foreign objectives and interests. It isn't our conflict - we are only dying in it.”

But what could an election mean for Afghanistan, and who might run?

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Who is in the running?

A total of 16 candidates are running in Saturday’s election, which will decide who serves as president for the next five years. Al Jazeera reports that in Afghanistan, the president is “both the head of state and the commander-in-chief of the Afghan armed forces” and also appoints the cabinet.

The news organisation suggests that six candidates are currently polling higher than all others, with the contest looking likely to come down to just two frontrunners.

First is Ashraf Ghani, the incumbent president who governs the country as an independent. He is mounting a defence of progressive policies implemented during his tenure including introducing anti-corruption measures, opening economic corridors with regional powers and appointing young and educated Afghans to top government positions, Reuters reports.

He is currently favourite to secure a second term, although whether he will achieve the 50% vote share he needs to win outright remains to be seen. Otherwise he will be forced to create a coalition government similar to the one he has helmed since the last election in 2014.

Ghani’s main rival at the polls, Abdullah Abdullah, is currently Ghani’s partner in the unity government formed in 2014. He is currently serving as Afghanistan’s chief executive officer, a post created after the election, but The Guardian reports that he and Ghani “have spent five years feuding bitterly under their banner of unity, and both believe they can now seize control of the government”.

Running under the motto of “stability and integration”, Abdullah identifies himself chiefly as from the Tajik community, Reuters adds, although he is also of Pashtun descent and has close historic ties with the Northern Alliance - a military organisation run by Ahmad Shah Massoud that has waged a defensive war against the totalitarian Taliban rule of the 1990s. Massoud is regarded as a national hero by many Afghans but is a widely despised figure within the Taliban, and Abdullah’s connections to him could pose a further threat to the stability of the country.

Will it be safe?

It seems unlikely. The Taliban has been waging a war demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country following its overthrow in 2001, Reuters reports, with subsequent governments decried by the groups as “puppet regimes”. 

And the Taliban makes no secret of its feelings. Rather than the usual speculative fears of violence ahead of the vote from media outlets, the group itself has actually publicly announced its intention to target the election, calling it a “sham process”.

The group issued a statement earlier in September that it shall “exert utmost efforts in preventing the elections”, adding that the process “will only be used as a ruse by the invaders and their hirelings to gain validity”.

It subsequently warned Afghans to avoid “electoral offices, voting booths, rallies and campaigns”.

The Guardian reports that not only have the insurgents vowed to target the election, but there have “already been attacks on a campaign rally and one of the vice-presidential candidates”, prompting many people to “stay away from polling stations in fear for their lives”.

One local in Kabul told the paper: “Voting when there is such a bad situation means you are crazy. And I am not crazy. The polling stations are not secure.”

Will it be fair?

If the last election in 2014 was anything to go by, this one may be fraught with electoral irregularities.

The Guardian suggests that this year is “effectively a repeat of the 2014 race”, when results were “so twisted by fraud, and heavily contested, that the US had to step in to broker a government of national unity”. The paper suggests that more fraud is “seen as inevitable” while turnout is “almost certain to be dented by security worries”.

“I think [a repeat of 2014 results] is likely and it would have really dire consequences for Afghanistan, especially since this election is intended to showcase the continuation of democratic processes and institutions in negotiations with the Taliban,” said Ali Yawar Adili of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Nevertheless, Abdullah has already accused Ghani of corruption ahead of the vote. The Washington Post reports that Abdullah has charged that Ghani is “using official powers and funds to buy support and possibly rig the polls” - a tactic which plays into the current atmosphere in the country, where “public mistrust of the newly staffed election apparatus remains high”.

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