Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission has announced April 5 as the date in which the 2014 presidential election will take place. My colleague Omar Samad has a good analysis of what this means for the future. At the same time, one might ask why this essentially bland bureaucratic announcement has been met with so much attention. One might also ask why the Commission needed to announce an electoral date a year and a half before the election. Part of the answer lies in the significant mistrust between Afghan opposition figures and President Karzai, which dates to past controversies about the election date.
Opposition figures have been pushing for the announcement of an electoral date as a sign of Karzai’s willingness to hold elections. The fact that a date had not yet been set had been used to argue that Karzai intended to hold onto power. At the same time, Karzai had good reasons for not wanting to set a date too quickly, and those reasons stem from an incident that occurred before the 2009 elections.
In the late summer of 2008, Afghan political figures inside and outside the government, as well as representatives of the international community who would fund the elections, agreed to hold the presidential elections on August 20, 2009. A political agreement was necessary because Afghanistan’s constitution states that presidential elections must be held between March 22 and April 22 of the year the presidential mandate ends. But Afghanistan’s mountainous geography and tough winter weather had in the past prohibited the holding of elections in spring time. Snowfall and snowmelt prevented access to candidates and electoral staff in many parts of the country. Afghanistan’s only previous general elections, in 2004 and 2005, had been held in October and September respectively, for much the same reasons.
A few months after the August agreement, in February of 2009, Yunis Qanooni, then the Speaker of the Parliament, made a surprise move. He argued that while all parties had agreed that elections would be held in the fall for understandable reasons, the Constitution was clear that President Karzai’s term ended on May 22. Qanooni proposed that a caretaker government be put in place between May 22 and the August election, meaning that Karzai could not run with the powers of an incumbent. Immediately afterwards, one of Karzai’s two vice-presidents, Ahmad Zia Massoud, who came from Qanooni’s Shura-i-Nazar political faction, declared that he would resign as vice-president if Karzai did not agree to step down on May 22. The President was suddenly put in an unexpectedly tight corner.
One must recall what these first months of 2009 were like for Karzai. This unprecedented constitutional challenge to his legitimacy came at precisely the moment that the incoming Obama administration was questioning his dependability and effectiveness as a leader. The two long-standing pillars of Karzai’s legitimacy and power—the fact that he had been elected by universal suffrage under the constitution in 2004, and the fact that he was supported by the international community—were being simultaneously attacked. The defection of his vice-president heightened the sense that his power was ebbing. The U.S. administration, under the guidance of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan, was perceived by many Afghans to initiate a campaign to encourage opposition candidates to run against Karzai.
Seemingly against the ropes, Karzai then began to demonstrate his tactical skills. Seeming to accept the premise of Qanooni’s argument, he took it to its logical conclusion by ordering the IEC to set an election date in accordance with the constitution. Now it was the opposition that was caught on the wrong foot. Everyone knew that an election could not be organized in the following three months. Furthermore, even if it could, the opposition was still far from prepared to contest it. Karzai would run with the powers of incumbency against an opposition still in disarray. This forced the opposition to argue either that the election had to be held in contravention of the constitution, or allow a political crisis to arise when elections could not take place in April, raising the prospect of Karzai seizing constitutional emergency powers. Karzai won this game of brinksmanship, and the opposition signaled its willingness to negotiate.
In early March, the parties met again at the presidential palace. According to Kai Eide, the U.N. representative at the time, who was present at the meeting, “there were no belligerent statements and no insistence that the president would have to go if elections were postponed. The controversy came to a definitive end when the Supreme Court issued a statement that the president would retain his full powers until the election was over.
Setting the election date 18 months before the election is an interesting precedent. On one level, it might be a signal from Karzai to the opposition that he wants elections that can facilitate the political transition. This is in keeping with his repeated statements that he will honor the constitutional provision that prevents him from running for a third term. On the other hand, the same climactic and geographic factors that have always impeded the holding of April elections still apply. This means that it is quite possible that at a later date elections have to be postponed for logistical and organizational reasons. If that happens, the main political actors will have to come together again and agree on a new date.
Announcing an early date at the very least shows that Karzai is clearly determined not to allow the 2009 trap to be sprung again. This time, if elections have to be postponed, it will be because the IEC and the international community request it for logistical and technical reasons.
A final implication of setting a constitutional date is this: with elections in the spring rather than the fall, the elections are now 18 months away rather than two years away. If nothing else has, that ought to begin focusing the attention of everyone—the IEC, the international community, and potential presidential candidates—on ramping up planning and funding.