- This poll matters more than usual
Afghanistan has the first round of its presidential elections today. This is actually only the first of two rounds, for the Afghan system requires the winner to obtain a simple majority of the votes cast, with the top two candidates going to a second round if no one obtains more than 50 percent in the first round. The very multiplicity of candidates, 36, indicates that no one will get a majority. The poll is likely to be a showdown between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The last election, in 2015, was marred by allegations of rigging, and the brokered resolution saw the loser, Abdullah Abdullah, take up the new position of chief executive. Apart from President Ghani and Mr Abdullah, two strong candidates are expected to be Gulbaddin Hikmatyar and Ahmad Wali Massoud. They indicate that the country has still to absorb the effects of the 1980s anti-Soviet struggle, for while Mr Hikmatyar himself was a mujahedin commander during that war, Mr Wali is a brother of the almost legendary commander whose assassination had come just before the 9/11 attacks took place, which led to the USA invading. Whereas as Mr Hikmatyar may well cut into President Ghani’s vote, Mr Massoud might take away some of Mr Abdullah’s vote.
One of the main concerns is about security. The Taliban have created much mayhem by attacks against election rallies and threats against participating. This might generate a low turnout, thus creating doubts about the legitimacy of the election. The election is coinciding with the abortive peace deal, but everyone expects the US-Taliban negotiations, called off by US President Donald Trump, will resume, and the next phase, intra-Afghan talks, to be handled by the President winning these elections. Because the constitutional future after those talks is murky, these elections may not be for what they ought to be, the presidency of Afghanistan for the next four years.
Pakistan has to tread very carefully under the circumstances. It must not play favourites, for it will have to deal with whoever is elected. It must not get carried away by the calculus of which candidate favours India more or less, as whoever is elected will follow Afghanistan’s national interests. In troubled times for the region, neutrality is best.