Ahmad Masood / Reuters

Heated rhetoric, but few real differences between Afghan front-runners

Officials worry that Taliban attacks and fraud could mar Saturday’s runoff election to replace Hamid Karzai

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — For Qudratullah Naqshbandi, the chief electoral officer in this southern province, the final days before Saturday’s runoff to elect a successor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai are hectic. His staff is working late into the night, preparing ballots and training poll workers. They’ve also been ordered to recount, in four days, all the ballots from local elections earlier this year because of alleged irregularities and fraud.

“I have to hire new staff, prepare material to send to districts, and do this recount,” Naqshbandi said. “We have to respect the orders, but even if we don’t sleep, don’t eat and don’t pray, it is impossible.”

Turnout was high across Afghanistan in April’s presidential vote, which resulted in two finalists — Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister turned Karzai critic, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former World Bank consultant and Afghan finance minister. In Helmand, where the Taliban held sway until the U.S.-led coalition organized a massive assault there four years ago, about 125,000 people voted, roughly a quarter of them female. Although some polling centers remained shut due to insecurity and others were forced to close because of rocket attacks during the day, the turnout was reflective of the Taliban’s waning influence in some districts here and the improving capabilities of the Afghan police and army soldiers who guarded the vote.

Abdullah Abdullah, above, won about 45 percent of the April vote; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai came in second.
Omar Sobhani / AFP / Getty Images

But Saturday’s election is a bigger test, and, some say, one that comes too soon for the Afghan security forces. Largely kept at bay in the first round of voting, the Taliban have a point to prove and have vowed to disrupt the runoff. Several districts of Helmand remain too insecure for election observers, said Yousuf Pashtun, who leads the provincial mission of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, an independent monitoring body that is deploying more than 200 observers in six districts. Pashtun fears that the absence of observers will create an opportunity for fraud. Roughly 6,000 election workers nationwide have been blacklisted for alleged irregularities in the April election, mostly voter fraud in exchange for money. Of Naqshbandi’s staff, 24 are blocked from working at the polls.

Ghani and Abdullah have been unusually vocal in criticizing each other, and the testy nature of the runoff could also breed fraud. This time, both candidates are aiming for “equal opportunity fraud,” employing local strongmen and local government officials to potentially stuff ballot boxes, said one senior election official. “Their efforts are aimed at not falling behind in initial votes — to send as many boxes to Kabul as possible, whether legitimate or stuffed,” said the official, who declined to be identified. “It is disheartening.” If the margin between the two candidates is fewer than 300,000 votes, the official warned, the country could be in for a long, messy post-election wrangling. 

Few policy differences

Despite the heated rhetoric, there is little, in terms of policy, setting the two candidates apart. Both have promised to sign the bilateral security agreement with the United States, which Karzai refused to do. Both have said they will talk to the Taliban, essentially continuing Karzai’s stance of the past several years. And both have, to varying degrees, cut deals with controversial strongmen, who once ruled districts of Afghanistan through violence and still hold sway over certain constituencies.

The race has turned largely on the backgrounds of the two men and of members of their coalitions. Abdullah’s and Ghani’s specific proposals — which have lacked for detail — to take the country forward in a crucial time of transition, as NATO draws down its troops here, are receiving far less attention from voters.

Ghani, a former World Bank economist, has called his opponent's team the "warlord ticket."
Wakil Kohsar / AFP / Getty Images

During campaign events this past week in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, talk focused on the candidates’ pasts. Abdullah and his two vice presidents were members of the mujahedeen that fought the Soviet invasion and in the civil war that followed. Abdullah’s critics decry his involvement in the brutal civil war and say his team lacks expertise to grasp the extent of the country’s economic problems. But his supporters, embracing the ticket’s jihad history, have focused on the fact that he, unlike Ghani, didn’t abandon Afghanistan during those difficult years.

Ghani, a former Johns Hopkins University professor who spent two decades in the United States, says his experience qualifies him to usher in governance and economic reforms and tackle corruption that has plagued every sector of Afghan society under Karzai. While Ghani’s campaign has branded its rival as the “warlord ticket,” the strategy has been undermined by Ghani’s own embrace of similarly controversial figures, including his choice of vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum. As recently as 2009, Ghani referred to Dostum, who has been accused by human rights groups of mass killings of Taliban prisoners, as a “known killer.”

Poetry and politics

Supporters of Ghani at a poetry event in Helmand province's capital.
Mujib Mashal

Last Friday afternoon in Lashkar Gah, Ghani supporters, most of them in their 20s and 30s, held a poetry event on the banks of the Helmand River. As the crowd filtered in, patriotic songs blared from speakers and men danced in a circle to a long-haired drummer. Young poets took turns celebrating Ghani in verse.

During a break from the poetry readings, Naveed Nazari, a campaigner for Ghani, tried to mobilize voters. “It is our duty to increase participation this time, and show that Helmand has an awakened society and informed youth,” he told the crowd.

During the campaign, some Ghani supporters have been accused of Pashtun nationalism. (Ghani, like Karzai, is Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, while Abdullah is of mixed Tajik-Pashtun background.) In Lashkar Gah, one Ghani campaigner, who had come from Kabul to train election observers, described the race as one between Ahmad Shah Abdali, the head of the Pashtun dynasty who consolidated Afghanistan as a state in the 18th century, and “Bache Saqaw, the nickname given to Habibullah Kalakani, the first non-Pashtun who took over the country in 1929 through a revolt.

The next morning, a warm but dusty Sunday in Lashkar Gah, Abdullah’s Helmand campaigners — a collection of controversial local strongmen, most of whom supported other candidates in the first round — played up his opponent’s vulnerabilities during a press conference at the office of Hezb-e-Islami, a conservative political party. The Abdullah supporters made an emotional appeal to what remains largely a conservative society.

Abdurrahman Jan, a controversial former police chief of Helmand whose personal militias have been accused of abuses and drug trafficking, said proudly that his candidate, Abdullah, represented the mujahedeen, while Ghani’s team had surrounded itself by what he called “a Red belt” — former members of the communist government that ruled Afghanistan during the 1980s. In Abdullah, Jan saw the return of “justice, of qisas,” he said, referring to the “eye-for-an-eye” concept of justice associated with the extremist Taliban.

But such claims are not being made at the national level. Abdullah, who belongs to the conservative Jamiat party, has not said he will turn to Sharia justice, while Ghani has said he will “erase the distance between the mosque and the palace.” Both candidates are seen as moderates and have promised to sustain the gains of the past decade in human rights and women’s participation in society.

I have already decided who I am voting for, but lots of my friends are still talking and deciding.

Haji Amin Gul Abed

Marjah resident

Adbullah has meanwhile benefited from the belief among some rural voters that Ghani is pro-communist. Despite endorsements from many leaders of the anti-Soviet jihad, Ghani has struggled to shed this perception. Haji Amin Gul Abed, a 58-year-old Marjah resident who in the first round voted for a conservative candidate who recently joined Ghani’s coalition, says it is hard for him to consider voting for Ghani.

"The Soviets killed seven members of my family, so I will not vote for the one sympathetic to communists," Abed said.

Abed, who trained in medicine but didn’t finish his degree, runs a pharmacy and clinic in the city of roughly 100,000. On a recent day, he sat inside the one-room clinic, cooling himself with a solar-powered fan (“Long live China,” he said of the technology). Abed complained that, after a flooding of foreign money into Marjah along with military operations, business has dried up. The people, so accustomed to Karzai as the main leader over the past decade, are finding it difficult to know which one of the two candidates to trust.

“I have already decided who I am voting for,” he said, “but lots of my friends are still talking and deciding.”

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the description of Ghani's position with the World Bank.

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