Afghanistan elections: The myth and reality about ethnic divides

Afghan voters may transcend ethnic and sectarian dividing lines during the April presidential election.

Today's generation, for the most part, is less preoccupied with petty ethno-sectarian struggles, writes Malikyar [EPA]

For the first time in Afghanistan’s recent history, the country’s major ethnic groups are effectively divided, not against each other, but rather, each from within. None of the 11 presidential tickets is ethnically homogenous and all ethnic groups are faced with their leaders separated and distributed in various presidential candidates’ teams.

But, does this mean that the age of ethnic divisions, which had culminated during the civil war of 1992-1996, is over? A brief review of the history of ethnic politics may help contextualise the matter.

The modern state of Afghanistan was founded in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, a Pashtun from the Sadozai clan of the Durrani tribe of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. In less than 20 years, Ahmad Shah conquered all of the territory that comprises today’s Afghanistan, in addition to the northern parts of then Mughal India. Within those suzerainties lived a multitude of ethnicities and tribes.

Afghan women get out the vote for elections

Historic overview

By the 1820s, the Empire lost some of its Eastern and Southern territories to the British Raj. Today’s territorial boundaries and ethnic composition of Afghanistan solidified in the 1880s and steps, albeit small, began to be taken towards a process of nation-building from the beginning of the 20th century, with Pashtuns – the Mohammadzai clan of the Durrani tribe – at the helm.

The Afghan Constitution of 1964, which transformed absolute monarchy into a constitutional one, also changed the relationship between the state and its population from that of the king and his subjects to the state and its citizens. Political parties and movements that emerged in the late 1950s and through the 1960s, whether on the right, left or centre of the political spectrum quickly attracted adherents that transcended ethnic, linguistic and sectarian divides.

Fragile democracy

The fragile democracy was hampered by the 1973 coup d’etat that ended Afghanistan’s constitutional monarchy and completely crumbled with the communist coup of 1978 and the ensuing Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan, which simultaneously challenged traditional political structures and modern ideological movements that were other than Marxist.

As the Afghan people’s jihad began to roll, political parties morphed into resistance organisations based in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. By the mid-1980s, signs of ethno-linguistic and sectarian divides began to appear among jihadi organisations. The flow of American cash and weapons turned former ethnically diverse but ideological brethren into rivals competing for a larger share.

By the mid-1980s, signs of ethno-linguistic and sectarian divides began to appear among jihadi organisations. The flow of American cash and weapons turned former ethnically diverse but ideological brethren into rivals competing for a larger share.

A similar fate broke up the leftist People’s Democratic Party, as disagreements and rivalry over power replaced their common vision for the country. Here too, the Pashtun and non-Pashtun members of PDPA fell back to their traditional affiliations.

A short-lived re-alignment that was formed after the Soviet withdrawal ended with Pashtun PDPA members collaborating with Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a mostly Pashtun mujahideen group and Tajik and Hazara PDPA officials surrendering to the mostly Tajik Jamiat-e Islami of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani. Ironically, both of these jihadi organisations were once at the extreme right as PDPA was at the extreme left of the ideological line.

With the ousting of the last remnants of the communist regime in Kabul in 1992, Afghan mujahiddin’s victory turned into a bloody fight for power. Ideology, at this point, had completely evaporated and ethnic polarisation began to flourish. The absence of a state structure, rule of law, a national army and a functioning economy allowed contenders to power to appeal to people’s traditional comfort zone, i.e. ethnic, tribal and sectarian networks to recruit foot soldiers.

Unthinkable atrocities that were committed between 1992-1996, deepened ethnic fault lines. Ironically, though, the Taliban’s draconian rule (1996-2001) slowly de-emphasised ethno-sectarian differences and prompted the same former competitors for power to form new alliances against the new common nemesis.

The ousting of the Taliban by the US-led military forces at the end of 2001 and establishment of a new regime based on democracy, equal rights and freedoms, has offered Afghans a new environment. During the last decade, while Machiavellian games for power have continued to be played, a wave of change has also made its way into the society, especially among the young generation of Afghans. Changing values are slowly transforming this nation and this shift is quietly, but fundamentally challenging the old ways.

Today’s generation, for the most part, strives for better living standards, access to education, healthcare, career opportunities and basic human freedoms rather than being preoccupied with petty ethno-sectarian struggles.

By the same token, the extremely weak rule of law, impunity of those who illegitimately have become rich and powerful and uncertainty about the aftermath of US and NATO withdrawal are elements that could potentially force this nation back to ethnic politics as a safety network.

Karzai’s hand?

It is said that President Hamid Karzai had a strong hand in forging composition of most of the major tickets that are currently competing for the April presidential elections in Afghanistan.“It was Karzai who sent General Dostum to Ashraf Ghani’s camp,” one politician told me.“Karzai is responsible for placing Mohammad Khan on Dr Abdullah’s ticket,” believes a disenchanted former Dr Abdullah proponent.

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And so, all the teams are designed by the outgoing Afghan president, if you believe the rumours in Kabul.

Whether these ethnically mix teams were designed by President Karzai or by calculations on the part of the candidates themselves, the result is that no presidential team can be claimed by any one ethnic group. Nor anyone of the candidates can count on a sure vote bank based on ethnicity, sect or language.

Will this result in voting paterns that are national and based on ideological differences as in advanced democracies? Probably not. The problem is that most of these teams have not come together on the basis of common visions and programmes. In many cases, team members are so diametrically opposite one another that it is difficult to imagine them working together let alone govern the country.

Materialism, born out of the past decades possibilities and uncertainty of the future, may also play a strong role in voting patterns. In the past couple of months, Kabul politics have turned into a never-ending bidding session at Sotheby’s auction house. Anyone who can either mobilise a few voters, contribute in strategy-making or simply manage stuffing ballot boxes in remote areas, puts him/herself up for bidding and goes to the highest bidding candidate, sometimes, for cash, other times for a position in the future government.

So, while there is a danger of Afghan politicians dragging the voters back to ethnic politics, there are also clear and present signs that voters may transcend ethnic and sectarian dividing lines during the April presidential elections. Whether the division of votes will be motivated by immediate material gain or based on a forward-looking vision, remains to be seen.  

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.