Millions of Afghans will cast their ballots at the poll this coming August for its second Presidential election since the Taliban was ousted in 2001. Some remain skeptical whether the election will be free and fair while others remain hopeful and desperate to see a positive change in the future administration. Lim Ka Ea conducted this interview on 13 July 2009 via email with a former Afghan colleague (who wishes to remain anonymous for valid security reasons) regarding the current election atmosphere in Afghanistan. Election in Afghanistan remains a key interest of Ka Ea’s since she worked in the first election administered jointly by the United Nations (UN) and Afghan Interim Electoral Commission back in 2003. For those who have been following the political situation in Afghanistan closely, this interview will provide you with a general sense of what’s actually happening in the country right now.

When is the Presidential election going to happen?

The election has been scheduled for 20 August 2009.

I understand that there has been a significant delay in the originally planned election date. What has caused the delay?

According to Article 61 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the term of the incumbent President ends on 1st Jawza (third month on the Afghan calendar) of the fifth year. Initially, President Karzai said that because the previous election was delayed, his term should go beyond the initial date set in the Constitution. Later on, as the actual constitutional date drew closer, Karzai unexpectedly declared that he was agreeable to it. By then, neither the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) nor the other candidates were prepared to run the campaign at such short notice and had to agree with his initially proposed extension date. Karzai’s opponents accused him of deliberately prolonging his term so that he could make necessary arrangements to secure a re-election.

I understand that the former interim electoral law drafted jointly by the Joint Electoral Management Body – JEMB, previously a UN and Afghan body managing the first election – has been revised and finalized by the IEC. Can you explain a little bit about the new electoral law including the eligibility of voters? Are there any significant changes? If so, what are they?

There is no significant change in the law. However, there was a new law drafted and tabled for discussion at Parliament for nearly two years. The draft was very controversial and resulted in many months of boycott by almost half of the members of Parliament. This law was finally not approved.

During the first election, the electoral campaign went on for 40 days. This time, it is 60 days. A normal standard is usually 30 days. Why is there an extended period for this election?

According to the IEC, this was decided on the basis of “inaccessibility” challenges in Afghanistan. Candidates are given more time to reach out to more people in remote and isolated areas.

How many Presidential candidates are there in this election?

41 candidates.

Are there any female candidates? Who are they?

Yes, there are two this time as compared to only one in the last election. Frozan Fana (the widow of a former Minister who was killed by angry Hajji’s* at the airport), and Shahla Atta (a current Member of Parliament). There are also five female Vice-Presidential candidates.

[*Hajji is a title given to a Muslim man who has performed his pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Abdul Rahman, the then Air Transport and Tourism Minister, was killed in a mob attack on his plane at Kabul airport on 14 February 2002. Witnesses and officials claimed that the pilgrims beat the Minister to death because they were angry at the latter’s failure to make necessary travel arrangements for their pilgrimage on time.]

In the last election, there are only 16 candidates. This year, there are more than 40. What do you think is the reason behind the significant increase in the number of candidates?

Well, I think there are four categories of candidates. 1) Serious candidates, 2) candidates who have stood against Karzai in a bid to force the latter to appoint them in some positions in the next government, 3) candidates who may have been encouraged by those in the first category to strategically step down in their favour during the run-up towards ballot day, and 4) candidates who just want to be famous!

I read that there are only 2 eligibility criteria to become a candidate for the election; one has to be an Afghan citizen and above 40 years old. I’ve read that many of them are illiterate. Is that true?

The eligibility criteria is very loose and basic, mainly an Afghan (born to Afghan parents), above 40 years old, a Muslim and not convicted of crimes against humanity and deprivation of civil rights. As far as I know, all candidates have certain level of education, but most of them are by no means fit for the Presidency. They have no plan, no strategy, even no idea of what a Presidents’s job may require. Ariana TV channel has organized a debate in which four or five Presidential hopefuls are invited to debate issues modelled after the US Presidential debate. When you listen to them, most are not more than just ordinary people. The other night, I was watching the program and one of the candidates was asked about the kind of political system he prefers for Afghanistan as some candidates, like Dr. Abdullah has promised to replace the current Presidential system with a Parliamentary system in which a Prime Minister will be sharing power with the President. The candidate responded that he did not want any system in Afghanistan, he just wanted an Islamic State!

What do you think should be some of the important criteria as a candidate?

I think a Presidential candidate should have certain important conditions; at least an average level of education, work experience, not being suspected for war crimes or crimes against humanity, etc.

I understand there are three top contenders; Hamid Karzai, Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Who do you think is the strongest amongst them in terms of popularity with the people and why?

Well, they are perhaps well-known to the international community, but there are other less known candidates who have established strong popular base in Afghanistan; for example, Dr. Ramazan Bashardost, the former Minister of Planning who resigned as a result of a controversy over the role of NGOs. He believed that most NGOs, including international NGOs were wasting funds donated by Western taxpayers to rebuild the lives of war-torn Afghans. In a recent opinion poll carried out by a German-supported think-tank at Kabul University, Bashardost’s popularity is second after Karzai and followed by Abdullah and Ghani respectively. So far in the eyes of many Afghans, Karzai is as they call it “khairul moujudin”, meaning the better amongst available options, lesser of two evils. Majority of people are not happy with his performance over the last seven years; his administration is seen by people as plagued by corruption, nepotism, favouritism, incompetency, impunity enjoyed by criminals, failure to reconstruct the country and failure to provide employment and security, amongst other things. But when they compare these shortcomings to Abdullah and Ghani, they still prefer Karzai. The backgrounds of all candidates are known to the people and they judge them based on this. For instance, when Abdullah was Minister of Foreign Affairs, 97 percent of the Ministry staff, including ambassadors and diplomats abroad were not only from one ethnicity (the Tajik) but from one small province in Panjsher. He was the spokesperson for Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Ministry of Defence during the civil war (1992-1996) when the country, including the capital, Kabul, was ruined and tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children were brutally massacred. So for many people, Abdullah is a reminder of the dark days during the civil war and the exclusive sectarian policies of Shura-e-Nezar, the party to which he belonged. Ghani, despite being an academic and internationally recognized personality also does not have good reputation inside Afghanistan. People judge on his performance at the Ministry of Finance and Kabul University where he was blamed for pursuing ethnic and linguistic policies. Therefore, Karzai continues to remain as the strongest.

What do you think will be the changes brought by each candidate above, should he win the election?

From what I have seen in their campaign materials, I think Karzai will continue to largely pursue the same policy of the last seven years. He may try to win the war against some Taliban leaders, but I doubt he will be successful in that. Abdullah has vowed to change the system from Presidential to Parliamentary. Ghani has promised to create one million jobs and fight corruption. Overall, I don’t think Afghanistan will be a better place under Abdullah and Ghani than under Karzai.

There was a rumour before that former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is an Afghan American, was going to nominate himself as a candidate. Is this rumour true?

Yes, I think he intended to run as a candidate but he changed his mind at the very last moment. I don’t know why. It is said that Karzai promised him a new post – Chief Executive. This post does not exist now, but the Americans wanted to create the post in order to reduce the power of Karzai. Initially, Karzai hinted to give the post to Khalilzad, but when the registration period of candidates had expired, he rejected the idea by declaring that the new President of Afghanistan will decide on this. So, there are suggestions that he has skilfully deceived Khalilzad!

I understand that Karzai has nominated Mohammad Qasim Fahim as one of his Vice Presidents and this has caused a lot of criticism from human rights groups. Can you talk a bit about Mohammad Qasim Fahimi?

Qasim Fahim is a notorious warlord who, according to documented reports by human rights organizations such as the Human Rights Watch, was directly responsible for a number of massacres in the 1990s, including the one in Afshar neighbourhood of Kabul where an entire ethnic Hazara minority community was wiped out by force under the command of Fahim. He has amassed a huge fortune out of war and owns many giant companies.

Do you think the voters will vote according to ethnic lines – Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek?

Yes, to some extent. Experience from the past has proven to the people of Afghanistan that politicians played the ethnic card only for their personal political interests rather than the benefit of their fellow ethnic groups, as claimed. So, many voters may vote for the candidates whom they expect to gain personal or communal benefit from while others will vote only for those with whom their influential elders have forged alliances, regardless of ethnicity. As it stands now, almost all Uzbeks, at least half of Hazaras and Tajiks will vote for Karzai. Perhaps, 20 to 30 percent of Pashtuns may also vote for Karzai. It is very likely that there will be a run-off election. In that case, Karzai will win anyway.

As I understand, Karzai is Pashtun himself. Why do you think he enjoys only 20 to 30 percent of the Pashtun’s support?

Yes, Karzai is Pashtun. But as it stands now, and it is of course subject to possible changes as we get closer to the polling day, many Pashtuns do not like him for many reasons. He has chosen Mohammad Qasim Fahim as his first Vice Presidential running mate. Fahim is considered by Pashtuns as a close ally and commander of Ahmad Shah Massoud, whom Pashtuns as well as other ethnic groups regard as a cruel and brutal killer during the time of the civil war in the nineties. Second, Karzai is regarded by many Pashtuns incapable of stopping the killings of Pashtuns at the hands of the American military force in the southern part of the country. Third, Pashtuns themselves are divided into different strong tribal affiliations. Other rival Pashtun tribes support their own candidates, such as Ghani, Arsalah, Tanay, and many more. That’s why it is very difficult for Karzai to win in the first round without the support from other ethnic groups, but it will be easy for him to win in the second round as he, by then, would probably be the only Pashtun candidate. Other ethnic groups who may vote for less popular candidates in the first round are likely to vote for Karzai, should there be a run-off election.

Can you talk a bit about the general campaign atmosphere in the country? Is there a general sense of intimidation?

Well, the campaign is not as heated as it was during the previous election. It is very slow and unenthusiastic. Huge posters on the streets and walls are the only visible sign of campaign so far. So far, there is a sense of insecurity in many parts of the country where the Taliban operate. There are few examples of intimidation by authorities also, but not a systematic phenomenon as yet.

What changes do Afghans really want to see in the country especially with the new President?

They want security, job opportunities, reconstruction and above all, justice; things that have been missing so far.

Do you think Obama’s administration has any impact on the election; e.g. influence on the candidate?

I don’t know really. These days, the US ambassador is meeting with Karzai’s opponents and attending press conferences with them, which has outraged Karzai. I think it is very logical to say that US will have influence over any candidate who wins, because of their heavy involvement in the fight against the Taliban and in financing reconstruction development projects.

In the past, some Parliamentary candidates, religious leaders (mullahs), governors have been killed for political and religious reasons, and even for supporting female candidacy? Is it the same now?

Yes, it is worse now. Many candidates, including women, are not able to travel to provinces and districts for campaigning because of insecurity. Interestingly, Bashardost is the only candidate who has so far gone to many provinces, including places with huge insurgent’s presence such as Laghman and Nangarhar.

Since the last election, do you think that people have a better understanding about the election?

Of course, but this time they seem to have less motivation to vote.

Why is there less motivation this time?

People are less motivated to vote because their aspirations have not been met by the current administration since the very first election. People now have less trust in the elections. The possibility of large-scale fraud and vote rigging has also demotivated people. Many people believe their vote may not change anything as the winner is already decided and he has made all arrangements for his victory. Other reason is that in the first election, we had stronger candidates along ethnic lines; Hazaras had their own Presidential candidate (Mohaqiq), Uzbeks had their own (General Dostum) and Tajiks had their own (Qanooni). But this time, Mohaqiq and Dostom have joined Karzai’s campaign team under a power-sharing deal.

In the past, there were a lot of problems during the registration of voter due to the lack of official document to prove citizenship and age of voters. Is it the same this year during the registration period? Are there new challenges? What about participation of women in very conservative region like the South and South East?

There are lots of problems this time too. They have issued around 16 million voter registration cards out of a total population of around 30-32 million. In many places, people have received multiple cards, sometimes in women’s names. For example, a man comes with a list of 10 women he claims are living in his household and receives cards for all of them!

This year, it is a completely Afghanized process. What are the main challenges?

It is not actually a completely Afghanized process. All the money, logistics, procurement, etc. comes from the UNDP-ELECT project. Out of five members of the Electoral Complaints Commission, three are foreigners appointed by the UN. I think, we had a lot of challenges in the previous elections also but were swept under the carpet somehow.

How many voters are expected to vote during the election? How many percent are women?

Around 16 million. 35 percent are women.

How many independent observers have registered for the election? Who are they?

Not known yet.

Thank you