Campaign season for Afghanistan’s twice-delayed presidential elections opened in grisly fashion on Sunday. An insurgent attack on the Kabul office of President Ashraf Ghani’s top running mate, Amrullah Saleh, killed more than 20 and wounded at least 50. As the attack demonstrates, security will be a top concern during the elections. But, the ongoing U.S.-Taliban talks and nascent intra-Afghan negotiations further complicate matters. And on top of all that, Afghanistan’s post-2001 elections have been characterized by deep challenges, many of which remain unaddressed with little time to fix. USIP’s Scott Worden surveys the scene two months ahead of the vote.

Damage from an attack at the headquarters of vice presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh, in Kabul, July 29, 2019. Violence, the peace process, and election management issues present profound challenges to this election. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Damage from an attack at the headquarters of vice presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh, in Kabul, July 29, 2019. Violence, the peace process, and election management issues present profound challenges to this election. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Campaigning for Afghanistan’s September 28 presidential election opened on Sunday. Who are the major candidates?

There are 18 candidates registered for the presidential election, each with two vice presidents on the ticket. In addition to incumbent President Ghani running for a second term, the two most watched candidates are Abdullah Abdullah, who is currently the chief executive officer of Afghanistan under the 2014 Government of National Unity Agreement, and Hanif Atmar, who was President Ghani’s national security advisor until this year and has served as a cabinet minister in previous administrations. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the most prominent mujahedeen leaders during the Soviet occupation who was aligned with the Taliban insurgency until he signed a peace deal with the Afghan government in 2016, has also decided to run. 

An incumbent president has advantages in any election. In Afghanistan the visibility of the sitting president and his ability to travel throughout the country with government resources and make appointments in the run-up to a campaign are significant benefits. On the other hand, the sitting president is more accountable than other candidates for deteriorating security and continued corruption, which have made many voters weary of the status quo.

Yet having the “anyone but Ghani” vote split among 17 candidates means each opposition candidate has an uphill path to victory. It is likely that no candidate will receive more than 50 percent of the vote required by the constitution to win outright. If not, the top two candidates will face off in a second-round election scheduled for November. If winter snows come early, there is a risk that second-round elections will need to be postponed to spring—possibly leaving the current government with reduced democratic legitimacy.

What are the issues that Afghans care about most in the lead up to the presidential polls?

The most dominant issue in the upcoming election is the prospect for peace. Afghans overwhelmingly want an end to the violence they encounter every day. There is little clarity, however, on what the Taliban are willing to compromise for peace. Amid this uncertainty, presidential candidates must make the case to voters that they are more likely to achieve peace than their opponents and, in doing so, will preserve more of the values voters care about. An interrelated issue for Afghans across the political spectrum is the preservation of Afghanistan’s good relations—whether or not a peace deal is achieved in the near term—with the international donor community, given the country’s dependence on foreign aid.

Beyond peace issues, all voters want less corruption, more jobs, and more services like electricity and roads. There are significant differences among the candidates and Afghan citizens over the role Islam should play in government decisions (and which interpretation of Islam is correct) and the role of women in society—particularly their rights to a full education and to work. 

Ethnicity will also play a significant role in voter preferences. Afghan politics has been increasingly polarized along ethnic lines over the past five years. The 2014 elections showed that ethnicity is strongly correlated to voter preferences. In the run-off between Ghani, a Pashtun, and Abdullah, seen by many as Tajik, most provinces voted in line with their ethnic majority.

Afghan elections have been characterized by fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. Are the country’s institutions prepared to conduct these elections? How does the security situation impact the elections’ conduct and integrity?

Afghan electoral institutions face a daunting task. Parliamentary elections held in October 2018 had more polling centers closed due to poor security than any election since 2001; fewer voters than ever before; and again faced allegations in many provinces of widespread fraud. Both the Independent Election Commission that runs the elections and the Electoral Complaints Commission that adjudicates election disputes were fired in February for their mismanagement of that election. This means that both key electoral institutions have new leaders with little election experience. 

On top of that, the September election comes at the end of another violent fighting season when many districts are inaccessible. The Taliban have again threatened to disrupt the elections. The target and timing of the attack on Saleh’s campaign office demonstrates the Taliban fully intend to undermine the election. To that point, the day following the attack, none of the 18 candidates held a rally or public gathering.

Candidates are placing a lot of hope in a new biometric voter verification system designed to compare fingerprints of voters and eliminate duplicate voting. Yet the history of relying on technology rolled out on short notice in countries facing enormous development challenges warns against betting on this as any kind of a panacea for the previous problems facing Afghan elections.

As the Afghan peace process moves forward, there is a debate as to whether the elections should be postponed. What is this debate centered on? How could developments in the peace process impact the presidential election?

The fundamental challenge facing the peace process is to foster negotiations that are inclusive of Afghanistan’s different political and ethnic factions, as well as men and women. But, a presidential election is inherently exclusive, given that only one winner gains highly centralized executive powers. 

For their part, the Taliban have rejected the legitimacy of any government that is elected under the 2004 constitution, which effectively excluded the Taliban from the process. This leaves a choice between pursuing a negotiated solution with the Taliban that would lead to a new system that the Taliban agree to participate in or seeking to renew the current government’s legitimacy through elections and having the new government negotiate from what it hopes will be a position of greater strength. 

Neither path is easy. The current peace effort prioritizes achieving an agreement on a framework for talks between the Taliban and the government, with elections as a useful alternative that prevents a power vacuum if no deal is possible. This could backfire, however, if the election is again fraudulent and controversial because the resulting government could have a weaker mandate than the current one.  Whatever unfolds, holding an election only postpones the most difficult questions around power sharing. Since neither side can achieve a military victory, a negotiation that settles on a governing arrangement that is broadly acceptable to all parties still must occur.

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