KABUL, Afghanistan — With a historic presidential runoff election rapidly approaching, Afghanistan is at a crossroads. Will the two remaining candidates continue to push forward to the scheduled June 14 runoff? Or will they recognize that, for all their differences, the best interests of the nation require them to forge an alliance?
Afghanistan, more than ever before, appears to be making meaningful progress towards stable democracy, as President Hamid Karzai prepares to cede the reins of power to his duly elected successor after more than 12 years in office as required by the Afghan constitution. This will be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power.
At the same time, the very fact that a run-off election is necessary points to looming dangers rooted in Afghanistan’s fierce and often bloody ethnic rivalries. This is an especially precarious moment as most foreign troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, barring a new agreement.
Facing off in the final round are frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leader, and former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani.
Though of mixed Pashtun and Tajik heritage, Abdullah played a visible role in furthering the Tajik agenda during the brutal civil war of the 1990s. For his part, Ghani belongs to the Pashtun ethnic group, the nation’s largest, which suffered greatly at the hands of the Tajik-dominated government to which Abdullah is so closely linked.
In the first electoral round on April 5, Abdullah claimed nearly 45 percent of votes to Ghani’s 31.5 percent, and he has since won the support of third-place candidate Zalmay Rassoul, who carried 11 percent of voters.
One of the many wild cards in this explosive mix is the Taliban. The organization draws its support largely from the Pashtun, sparking concern that an Abdullah victory could spur Taliban recruitment efforts. There is also growing concern that the Taliban will use violence to disrupt the upcoming elections in an effort to destabilize the country.
Raising the stakes even further is Afghanistan’s winner-take-all political culture. Regardless of the victor, he can be expected to place his cronies, warlord supporters and other close allies in positions of power. Those who did not vote for him are likely to be entirely locked out.
And yet, for all these challenges, Afghanistan is in a far better position now than at any time in recent memory.
Both Abdullah and Ghani are highly qualified compared with any contenders since the assassination of President Mohammed Daud Khan in 1978 by Russian backed communist party operatives. Both offer new hope for improved relations with the west, having said they would sign a security agreement allowing US forces to remain after 2014, something Karzai refused to do.
Both candidates also have significant weaknesses. In the first round of voting, Abdullah did predictably well among the Farsi-speaking Tajik in the relatively calm north and west but—again predictably—poorly in the Pashtun-dominated south and east. His support among the younger generation is not strong, a significant issue in a country where 68 percent are younger than 25 Despite his efforts to broaden his appeal, he continues to be viewed by many as a member of old guard.
For all Ghani’s success in the Pashtun-dominated east and south and among younger voters, he lacks a forceful public persona — what we in the west call the “electability factor.” Not surprisingly, he has failed to convince those who did not vote for him in the first round of elections on April 5 that he would make a strong leader.
This weakness is reflected in his choice of an Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as a running mate, bringing a strong man to his side as compensation for his own lack of confidence. This choice angered even many of his supporters because of the widespread belief that Dostum ordered the 2001 massacre of thousands of Pashtun Taliban in his fiefdom.
There is, however, an upside to the candidates’ shortcomings: Their deficits make it crystal clear how much each could gain from an alliance. Together, Abdullah and Ghani are far stronger than either can be separately. Moreover, a coalition has the potential to bring about unprecedented political equilibrium by recognizing the legitimacy of both Pashtuns and Tajiks, respectively the nation’s largest and second largest ethnic groups.
Most importantly, they have the opportunity to put the focus where it belongs: Combating crime and terrorism, and fueling jobs and economic growth.
Unfortunately, there is little sign that a coalition government is in the offing. Abdullah signaled just the opposite last month when he told The New York Times he had no intention of forging an alliance. “Now the issue is how to strategize for the second round.”
This is a mistake with potentially tragic consequences for Afghanistan, which desperately needs to move beyond ethnic conflict to a culture of opportunity for all Afghans. Abdullah and Ghani joining forces is far more likely to save lives than to cost them.
Wahab Raofi is an Afghan-born American who works as linguist and culture adviser for NATO in Afghanistan. The opinions expressed in this piece are his alone and not intended to represent those of NATO.