Moving beyond personality cults in Afghanistan elections

For the first time in over 30 years, Afghan politicians are articulating their platforms to voters.

Over-sized billboards appear to be the media of choice for spreading candidates' messages [EPA]

Afghans were glued to their television sets on February 4, not to watch any of the popular Turkish soap operas, but to witness the first western-style debate among five of the 11 presidential contenders for the country’s April 6 vote.

The candidates will have two months to further communicate their platforms to the nation. However, given the vulnerable security situation throughout the war-battered country, privately-owned Afghan television stations and over-sized billboards appear to be the media of choice to spread their messages.

Justice, rule of law, peace, security, prosperity, job creation, moderation, equality and national unity are among the plethora of lofty slogans with which the candidates have launched their campaigns. The TV debate – one of many yet to come – provided a venue for them to flesh out their thoughts on those themes.

But the positions of all five presidential hopefuls, during the televised debate, were remarkably similar on most issues, leaving Afghan spectators wondering, why then, are they running on five different tickets?

Waging a personality cult – versus a campaign driven by ideology – is a modus operandi that has dominated Afghan politics for more than three decades since the coup d’etat led by Mohamed Daoud Khan that abolished the monarchy in 1973. Today, this culture has been exacerbated by the fact that Afghan Election Law does not allow candidates to run on partisan platforms. Rather, they must nominate themselves as individuals.

These political personalities have to form alliances – mostly unholy ones – with other individuals who can bring them votes. Consequently, each ticket is an amalgamation of Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups and a mix of former mujahideen and technocrats, mostly as ideologically diverse as day and night.

The goal is to achieve the highest vote count. Whether the winner can form a cohesive government based on a common ideological vision and a team of like-minded people to implement the vision, does not appear to be an immediate priority.

While visions – albeit, amazingly similar – are being articulated through television programmes and on billboards, the real campaign is taking place behind the scenes, through wheeling and dealing with local strongmen, tribal elders, district heads and parliamentarians who have the power to manipulate their respective constituencies.

Manipulating ballot boxes

This method of local influential leaders affecting vote patterns is not particular to Afghanistan. It happens even in some of the more advanced and mature democracies. However, in Afghan politics, while influencing the vote of local constituencies is an important aspect, in the end, manipulating ballot boxes determines the winner.

In Afghan politics, while influencing the vote of local constituencies is an important aspect, in the end, manipulating ballot boxes determines the winner.

Stuffing boxes in your favour, however, is not an easy task. This entails precision planning, having the right people, and enough of them, at polling stations and at the Elections Commission, purchasing blank forms, filling the forms in favour of your candidate, a long night of stuffing boxes and finally, having the Commission certify your stuffed boxes.

No individual candidate has the capacity to carry such a task nationwide, therefore, he delegates it to a number of persons who have the capacity to organise and manage it in various locations. Some of these local ballot box managers are traditional supporters of candidates, usually on the basis of ethnicity, tribe and clan. A few have relationships that go back to mujahideen groupings during the resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

However, in these presidential elections – the third since the US-led war that ousted the Taliban from power – a significant number of local ballot box managers have transcended traditional ethnic, regional and sectarian lines and have signed up with the highest bidder.

There is a clear concern about security affecting the opening of polling stations in many districts. President Hamid Karzai’s administration insists that ballot stations in most of the areas with questionable security will be open on election day. Ironically, most of the candidates also insist that those stations be declared open. Why? Simply because the lack of security means a better opportunity for vote rigging.

The accumulated knowledge of the vote rigging game, for past winners and losers alike, is making this year’s presidential elections a singularly complex and crafty contest. The winner, therefore, will be the candidate with the highest aptitude for tactical thinking and picking the right ballot box managers for the right offer.

But, even a world chess champion cannot win this game without money, and no doubt, a mindboggling amount of it. Campaign financing has an entirely different definition and mechanism in Afghan elections. It has no ethical boundaries and the flimsy articles in Afghanistan’s new Election Law offer no practical means of monitoring. The field is wide open to receiving and disbursing funds without accountability.

While everyone is talking with certainty about fund donations to various candidates by regional and international powers, no serious attempt was made by the Afghan state to put in place mechanisms to check transfer of funds from foreign countries. Admittedly, this is an extremely difficult process to monitor, given the complex money scene of Afghanistan. This includes two porous borders with Iran and Pakistan, lack of mechanisms to trace money transfers through the traditional hawala system and unwillingness to control the movement of funds through the nation’s airports. Then, there are purportedly generous donations handed in by foreign embassies in Kabul and finally, millions of narco-dollars.

All that said, the fact that the candidates are exerting a real effort to make speeches and participate in televised debates to explain their positions on issues ranging from security to economic development, education and employment opportunities, women’s rights and freedom of speech, indicates that Afghan politicians are beginning to heed the demands of at least a portion of eligible voters.

Altering campaign strategies

Pressure from young voters (comprising the largest demographic), the increasingly awakened urban women, intellectuals, technocrats, bureaucrats, civil society organisations and activists, the media and even portions of rural Afghanistan, that have become fed-up with status quo politicking, appears to be slowly altering campaign strategies.

Consequently, this year’s campaign has adopted a two-pronged strategy: In voting districts with a questionable security environment, the focus is on using the opportunity to stuff ballot boxes; whereas in more secure voting centers – mostly urban areas, where there will also be a measure of monitoring – effort is made to convince voters with attractive platforms.

Despite the opportunities squandered by the international community and Afghan leaders alike – to establish the right environment and code of conduct for Afghanistan’s journey towards healthy elections – the candidates’ acquiescence of the need to communicate their programmes to potential voters represents a glimmer of hope for the future. On the brink of the US and NATO military drawdown, facing the inevitable decrease in foreign aid and with a treasure trove of experiences both sweet and bitter, Afghans are beginning to utilise civic pressure and their politicians are beginning to show signs of paying attention.   

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.