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Challenges faced by the Afghan elections: could they follow current polarisations and ethnic divisions?

Ethnic loyalties could play a determining factor in Afghan elections.

Can Afghan elections cut across the ethnic divide in the country? With tribal parties so strong, Dr. Mayoddin Mehdi assesses the chances of a truly Afghan election.

In most countries, elections are held as a means of achieving a final solution to challenges faced by politicians and statesmen. The main point is that it is an accepted fact in these countries that the election is the final hearing.

But we know that in our country, Afghanistan, the number of groups refusing to accept this fact is not small. Some even regard elections to be an un-Islamic practice, and refuse to accept the results even of a transparent and orderly election. Unfortunately, among these groups are those who are seen as the main players in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

This is the first challenge faced by elections in Afghanistan. These groups recognise weapons - not elections - as a “decisive logic” for settling a dispute. Some of them receive support from outside the country. They use Islam and Sharia law as a cover for achieving their political and racial goals. In their case, Islam, which is a common faith of all tribes residing in Afghanistan, is interpreted in a different way.

It could be said without any exaggeration that the first, second, and in fact every vote in the previous elections in Afghanistan were tribal votes.

Some others, who do not consider elections to contradict Islamic tenets, are sceptical about the elections. So they take part in the election but vote for the candidate who belongs to their respective ethnic group. It could be said without any exaggeration that the first, second, and in fact every vote in the previous elections in Afghanistan were tribal votes.

I am not trying to say that those results conformed to Afghanistan's ethnic profile. What I am saying is that these people recognise the elections, but see it as confirmation of their tribe’s superiority over others. It was from this standpoint that, following the announcement of the last election results, commentators who were close to President Karzai presented an ethnic interpretation of the votes in ballot boxes. They regarded the results as indicative of a quantitative superiority of a certain tribe and called President Karzai the leader of that tribe.


Elections in Afghanistan have the potential to unite - or divide - Afghans.

Following the same reasoning, some groups also saw these votes as a good basis to get their entry card to the government. For example, the recent remarks by the Justice Minister of Afghanistan, Mr Sarwar Danish, attest to this fact. He argued that his party (led by Mr. Karim Khalili) sided with President Karzai because it was agreed that 20 per cent of all the government posts would be given to them.

So it could be argued that an ethnic view of the political system as a whole (and the elections in particular) is an official view. Other manifestations of this view of governance could be seen in “the composition of state leadership” and the foundation of political parties registered with the Ministry of Justice.

The President represents one tribe and each of his vice presidents represents other tribes. In other words, in the election system of Afghanistan, it is a clear fact that individuals belonging to ethnic minorities will never reach the posts of the president and vice president. When the present Foreign Minister of Afghanistan heard the news of the victory of the black Barrack Hussein Obama in the US presidential election, he wrote in a touching way in ‘8 Sobh’ newspaper : “Will I ever be witness to a day in my country too when a Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek… and so on becomes a president?”.

An ethnic view to the political system and elections has been institutionalised in another way as well. There are more than one hundred registered political parties.

Quantitatively, the weakest of these parties are those who claim to be national, i.e. those who claim to be “Afghanistan-wide”. Conversely, the parties that belong to particular tribes and faith are strong. The power of moving or mobilising the people lies in the hand of those who resort to the weapon of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘religion’. Such parties held high positions in President Karzai’s government, while the President himself claims to hate “party”. He always presents the popular view that people do not have good memories about parties. That is why the Election Law of Afghanistan enshrines no rights for political parties.

Here we face the question: will the election still be tribal because the strong parties are tribal?

The political system of Afghanistan is therefore facing another paradox: the claim of democracy on the one hand, and opposition to “Afghanistan-wide” or “national” parties on the other. The state of Afghanistan (at least the government, judiciary and the parliament) never tends to recognise that the best, most modern and tested means of nation-building and stopping tribalism is to set up political parties with national composition. This is something that multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries, such as India, have successfully experienced.

Here we face the question: will the election still be tribal because the strong parties are tribal?

We should remember that the foundation of the present regime was laid at the Bonn conference. At that conference, Abdul Sattar Seerat won the majority of votes in the inter-factional election (Axis of Rome), but he was deprived of his right to become the chairman of the provisional administration only because he did not belong to the majority tribe. His place was taken by Hamid Karzai, who just won 3 votes against the 13 votes of Mr. Seerat. The international community backed this undemocratic return on the assumption that the problems in Afghanistan at that time resulted from the majority ethnic group being ousted from power. This contributed to the strengthening of parties with tribal foundation and thinking.


Elections are used as a problem solving tool in most countries. Will it be the same in Afghanistan?

Another paradox in the international community’s policy is that it has slogans about ending the reign of warlords and charging them as human rights violators on the one hand, and on the other facilitates their presence and flourishing. It is aware that they are still influential in their tribe due to their vast financial power - meaning that they “have the votes”. In the past eight years, the international community never paid any attention to promoting the setting up of a sound, non-tribal, non-religious and Afghanistan-wide opposition to the present government. In fact, despite claims of its opposition to warlords and gunmen, the international community has always had consultations with them.

If we accept that the main challenge faced by the Afghan government and the international community is the war and insecurity, can the coming election in Afghanistan be considered as an appropriate way of overcoming this challenge?

To find an accurate answer to this question we need to go back a little and briefly identify the roots of war and insecurity and of Afghanistan’s crisis as a whole.

Until 1978 there was a government in power which was fed from three traditional sources of legitimacy: tribalism, inheritance and support of religious scholars. The coup of April 27 of that year separated the government from the roots of inheritance and religious support. But then the victory of the mujaheddin in 1992 reinstated the principle of religious support to the government, while cutting the tribal roots.

The fighting which followed, known as factional fighting and civil war, was rooted in this. The Bonn Conference and the presence of international troops in Afghanistan never focused on uprooting and fundamentally resolving this part of the crisis.

International forces overthrew the Taliban, but failed to annihilate them and their allies. There were two reasons for this: first, the presence of strong elements within the newly established Afghan government who were against annihilating the Taliban; second, Pakistan (whose powerful army was an architect and supporter of the Taliban) did not want to lose this effective weapon.

Afghanistan’s forthcoming elections cannot put an end to this situation. I believe that the Taliban will enjoy the support of Pakistan until the international community provides a guarantee that Afghanistan’s territorial claim to Pakistani territory is ended - in exchange for the consent of that country to the annihilation of the Taliban. That is why the Afghan society is concerned that, if a non-Pashtun wins the coming election, we will once gain return to the civil war of the 1990s.

Elections in Afghanistan can serve as a means of resolving the crisis only when the process of ‘nation-state building ’ is re-launched.

All this leads me to the following two conclusions.

First, elections in Afghanistan can serve as a means of resolving the crisis only when the process of ‘nation-state building ’ is re-launched. The international community has to show in practice that it is not seeking to support tribal processes and that it backs the formation of a political opposition that has a national composition.

Second, the international community, by ignoring the reality of border disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, has failed to address a fundamental part of the crisis. Some analysts believe that the international community should guarantee the present borders of Pakistan so that the latter give up the idea of destabilising Afghanistan by the Taliban. Time is of the essence because, worryingly, some experts have described the Obama Administration's new Afghanistan strategy as a plan for US withdrawal from Afghanistan. This raises the concern that ‘the Taliban will return’.

It appears that if, after the forthcoming election, Hamid Karzai remains in power with the support of the US, the current crisis will not only continue but will further deteriorate. At present, Karzai (as a candidate) uses all the means and powers he enjoys as the head of state. It would be a mistake for the international community to expect the Afghan people to regard this election as transparent - and be satisfied with its results.

Elections in Afghanistan can turn into a democratic process and a tool for ensuring security and justice. But only if the West recognises these two conclusions as the main causes of the crisis - and the main barriers to the establishment of stability and security.

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