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Presidential election. A stress test for Afghanistan

The presidential election in Afghanistan will be an important exam for the political system that was formed in the past several decades

24.01.2019 18:28 Georgi Asatryan, Ph.D., President of Syndicate Consulting Group, Senior Lecturer for the RSUH, Expert for the Russian International Affairs Council, the Middle East Institute

Presidential election. A stress test for Afghanistan

            Political processes in Afghanistan have remained tumultuous. News about the presidential election has filled the information sphere immediately after news about negotiations with the Taliban movement took a backseat. The election in which Afghanistan will vote for president in the probably most important historical period for the country will take place on July 20, 2019. Members of district and province councils are also expected to be elected on the day, and these elections should not be underestimated as well.

            Russia is particularly interested in the upcoming elections. The situation in Afghanistan has remained very complicated. There is every reason to believe that the situation in the security and socio-political spheres will deteriorate. The Taliban movement, which is banned in Russia, is now controlling over 40% of Afghanistan's territory and a major part of rural areas. In fact, radicals have become a real political and economic power in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

            Meanwhile, Moscow is historically interested in stable and prosperous Afghanistan, and its policy on this track has been active. So, it is very important for Russia and its national interests who will take the presidential seat in Afghanistan. Moreover, Afghanistan has a long border with Russia's allies in Central Asia. People of these countries enjoy visa-free travels with Russia, and the counties are bound by joint agreements within the framework of the SCO, CIS, EAEU and CSTO. And that is why the importance of the Afghan presidential election is hard to overestimate.

            More than 10 candidates have announced their presidential ambitions. Abdul Latif Pedram, Hakim Torsan, Sayed Jalili, Inyatullah Hafeez, Zalmai Rassoul, Nur ul-Haq Ulumi and Faramarz Tamanna earlier declared their intention to run for presidency. But naturally the following politicians are considered to be the most serious candidates. The first is incumbent President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Secondly, it is Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who is in charge of the executive branch of power in Afghanistan. The third is Mohammad Hanif Atmar, an influential politician and former national security advisor. The fourth is former Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh. And the fifth is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the founder and the leader of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan.

            It is expected that other Afghan politicians will soon announce their intention to run for presidency. But already now one can say that the upcoming election will be truly interesting and bright. At least, famous politicians, diplomats, field commanders and even terrorists in the past will take part in it.

            Interestingly, that Hekmatyar, Atmar and Saleh take part in the election. All the three enjoy support and rather serious influence in Afghanistan. The first politician leads his own party that brings together dozens of thousands of people all over the country. The ideology of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic organization which is banned in Russia and which has many connections across the Muslim world. However, the best days of Hekmatyar are in the past, and the level of his support in Afghanistan has dropped.

            Atmar was discussed in detail in the article titled "Afghanistan readying for presidential election." He is now the most preferable candidate for Moscow.

            At the same time, it is hard to imagine politicians more diverse in terms of mindset, political line and outlook. The participation of the incumbent president and prime minister is in general an expected move, but it is hard to tell their chances. This time both Ghani and Abdullah have serious competitors who are capable of competing with them for the support of their traditional voters.

            Moreover, all the above-mentioned politicians are unlikely to reach the final lap. Apparently, it is not the real competition that many of them got nominated for. Many of them are solving their own financial and political issues. It is likely that a major part of politicians will form alliances and support the most famous and influential presidential candidates.

            Incumbent President Ashraf Ghani enjoys rather low ratings and weak support among Afghan political and economic elites. Nevertheless, there is a chance that he will be reelected due to three things. Firstly, the chief sponsor of the current political regime in Afghanistan, the United States of America, is so far supporting him. Secondly, other political groups and elites are quite fragmented and lack formalized and comprehensible political lines and programs. Thirdly, the significance of negotiations with the Taliban is hard to overestimate. It is President Ghani, who launched, inspires and conducts them. It is he, who made a sensational statement in February 2018 calling on the Taliban to take part in elections and become a political force. However, this last point may become not only an advantage but a problem for Ghani, as positions of those who oppose negotiations with radicals are strong in Afghanistan. In any case, the support of the current elites and of course the United States will be Ghani's main allies.

            Ghani is not the best candidate for Russia. He is a scholar and intellectual. The Times included him of the list of Top 100 thinkers for a reason. However, I have many times seen his excessive emotionality. Regretfully, now the political elite close to the president, an Eastern Pashtun from the Ghilji tribal confederacy, is in fact anti-Russian. Neither the president, nor his agents with some minor exceptions like Russia and official Moscow. Some Russian observers link this to a foreign political factor that is "intrigues of the Department of State." That is not so. Or not exactly so. President Ghani sincerely and wholeheartedly dislikes Russia. Well, the president has never hid that.

            His only chance to win the upcoming election is to show that negotiations with the Taliban are successful. Both the United States and Pashtun elites in Afghanistan will like this.

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