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Ethnic loyalty declines in Afghan politics

Politicians are putting aside ancient rivalries to form political teams that reflect the country’s diversity.

Last updated: 13 Jun 2014 15:50
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Mushtaq Sadat said his vote will be determined not by his ethnicity [Moh. Sayed Madadi/Al Jazeera]

Kabul, Afghanistan - Ethnic diversity is slowly displacing the traditional loyalties that have long shaped politics in Afghanistan, hinting at a possible future free of deep-seated divisions.

While tribal factors have again been thrown into relief as voters head to the polls in the country’s first presidential run-off, observers say a transformation is under way.

A new generation of voters is showing signs of backing candidates who can promise their country improved prospects - and politicians hungry for their support may be responding.

"I think Afghan politicians in the last 13 years have become more rational actors than ideological or traditional politicians," said Ahmad Idrees Rahmani, an assistant policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, who closely watches Afghan politics.

Low profile

Since the NATO intervention in 2001, ethnicity has assumed a surprisingly low profile in political debates within the country, except in exceptional cases such as the controversy over electronic national ID cards in late 2013.

Omission from the cards of citizens’ ethnicity exacerbated Afghanistan’s historical divisions because critics suggested incorporating everyone within the category "Afghan" merely helped the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Nonetheless, ethnicity tends to rise up the agenda during elections - something that has been amply demonstrated by the rival presidential tickets that formed to fight the first round of voting on April 5.

Ashraf Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat known for his anti-warlord stance, brought in Abdul Rashid Dostum as his candidate for first vice president - a prominent former army general during the Soviet war in Afghanistan whom Ghani had called "a known killer" in 2009.

The only reason why this alliance has made political sense is Dostum’s strong public base among Uzbeks, a key source of votes for Ghani, who is a Pashtun.

Traditional logic also shaped the approach of Mohammad Mohaqiq, a prominent Hazara leader who joined as candidate for second vice president on the ticket of frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah, who is part Pashtun and part Tajik.

The two leaders had fought each other during the brutal civil in the early 1990s, destroying the capital Kabul and leaving a death toll of more than 60,000.

Mujib Rahimi, Abdullah Abdullah’s spokesman, believes that despite the significant role ethnic affiliation plays in the Afghan arena, a "realistic political intellect" is now in the ascendant among hopefuls more inclined to interact according to political interest than ethnic rivalry.

Diversity in practice

The new ethnically diverse alliances this new approach is yielding have been much in evidence during campaigning for the run-off.

Mujib Rahimi, Abdullah’s spokesman, said "realistic political intellect" is a priority [Moh. Sayed Madadi/ Al Jazeera]

Against all the odds, for example, Ahmad Zia Massoud - a Tajik leader and younger brother of the late guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud - endorsed Ghani for the runoff.

Massoud - the only prominent Tajik leader to join Ghani’s camp - had stood as the first vice president of Zalmai Rassoul in the first round of the elections, who finished third after securing 11 percent of votes.

Ghani’s campaign team took advantage of Massoud’s allegiance to silence critics who had accused him of aiming to sideline Tajiks - his presidential ticket comprises a Pashtun, an Uzbek and a Hazara.

Abbas Nooyan, Ghani’s spokesman, said they wanted to include all ethnic communities in order to put forward a national team.

"Though we haven’t promised anything in return for the people’s endorsement, Dr Ghani has accepted to delegate some of his presidential authorities to Mr Massoud, who will serve in the economic portfolio within the cabinet," Nooyan said.

In a campaign rally in the high, northern hills of Kabul known as Kohdaman where the majority of residents are Tajik, Massoud accused Abdullah’s team of corruption and said he joined Ghani’s team to be part of a national government comprising all ethnic groups.

He also attacked critics who were only "seeing the national issues from an ethnic perspective".

Meritocracy

Yet despite signs of change, it is unlikely that ethnic factors will disappear from Afghan politics any time soon, although some observers believe it may be possible to reconcile them with a more modern, representative approach.

Nooyan, while accepting the ethnic nature of Afghan politics, said that tribal and traditional leaders are chosen by the people which makes them their true representatives.

"We cannot have a democracy as is in the West," Nooyan said.

Mujib Rahimi, Abdullah’s spokesman, also believes that ethnic politics is not likely to disappear in the foreseeable future - but this nonetheless may not undermine the principle of meritocracy.

"In highly divided societies like Afghanistan, you need to balance the ethnic inclusiveness with meritocracy," Rahimi said. "While trying to incorporate all ethnic communities in the system, you should look for the most capable people to represent an ethnicity."

People power

Moreover, it is not solely politicians who can change traditional ways of doing things and ordinary citizens are also seen as a factor in challenging long-standing ethnic affiliations.

Afghan presidential race enters final days

Idrees Rahmani thinks that despite the shifting rhetoric of politicians, it is the limited progress that has been made in improving education and raising incomes that has meant political allegiances have remained traditional and tied to ethnic loyalties.

"You need to be rich and educated to be a rational player," said Rahmani.

Zaher 42, an illiterate shopkeeper in Kabul appears to confirm this logic, saying he trusts politicians from his own ethnic community more than others.

"We have been betrayed by those who claimed friendship," he said. "I cannot trust them, but leaders of our own [ethnicity] at least are accessible and we can ask from them what they have done and have not done."

Nonetheless, given Afghanistan’s turbulent history of ethnic conflict - from Abdur Rahman Khan’s massacre of Hazaras in the 1880s to the 1990s civil war and the Taliban’s exclusive regime - the trend appears to be changing.

Many young Afghans educated since 2001 are developing values that challenge ethnicity and have joined different campaign teams despite their ethnic differences - or harsh memories of past conflict - solely because they believe in the political cause.

Mushtaq Sadat, a student at the American University of Afghanistan, said his vote will be determined by an educated approach and his desire to support a candidate proposing a feasible plan for the future of Afghanistan - not his ethnicity.

There is also little doubt that if the run-off takes place peacefully, the incoming administration will display an unorthodox ethnic composition that challenges what Afghans have been used to in the past 13 years.

Abdullah - himself half Pashtun, but extensively affiliated with Tajiks - brings with him a broad non-Pashtun constituency, while Ghani has as his first vice-presidential candidate Dostum, a member of the Uzbek community that has hitherto never been on a presidential ticket.

For more on Afghanistan and the run-off elections visit our spotlight page

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Al Jazeera
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