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Afghan President Hamid Karzai. — AFP (File Photo)

KABUL: A favourite parlour game in the Afghan capital is predicting what will happen in the presidential election scheduled for April 2014.

Alongside the scale of the West’s commitment to Afghanistan post-2014, the presidential election — and also the parliamentary election slated for later in 2014 — is seen as critical to the next phase of Afghanistan’s political and security future.

While the fluid nature of Afghan politics means little can be certain 15 months ahead of an election, the focus of speculation at present is on President Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.

Will Karzai try and cling to power, directly or indirectly? Is his brother, Qayyum Karzai, being groomed to take over? And if not Karzai or his proxy, who is likely to fit the profile of an acceptable Afghan president?

For Karzai’s opponents, there is even a question mark over whether Karzai will allow elections to take place in the first place. “I see the president in no mood to hold elections,” argued Mirwais Yasini, who finished fifth in the last presidential election and is a vehement critic of the Karzai administration.

But a western diplomat who is deeply involved in Afghan politics appeared unconvinced that the presidential election will be scuttled.

The diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “I mean, Karzai has been saying for the last six months that there will be an election and that he won’t take part. So that’s something that will be hard to back out from.”

Yet, unsurprisingly, few of Karzai’s opponents are willing to take the president’s word at the moment. “(Karzai) is planning on convening a Loya Jirga to amend the constitution in his favour,” claimed Haji Zahir Qadeer, deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, referring to speculation that Karzai may seek a third term after all.

But Qadeer, who, like virtually every other politician in Afghanistan, claims he plans to contest the presidential election, said that convening a Loya Jirga would be unconstitutional because the third tier of the Loya Jirga, at the district level, has not yet been elected.

Sibling support

Among the many wild and woolly theories on the election doing the rounds of Kabul — an example being the ‘Putin model’, whereby Karzai will elevate a pliable vice president to the presidency and run the administration from a lower position — one name is consistently mentioned as a likely successor to Karzai: his elder brother, Qayyum Karzai.

“There is a lot of buzz in Kabul around the name of Qayyum Karzai,” said Daud Sultanzai, a member of the Afghan parliament.

Sultanzai argued that while it was too early for Karzai to formally name a candidate, the president is keen to have someone from his camp succeed him as president.

Weighing in in the elder Karzai’s favour is his position as President Karzai’s confidant and canvasser for support, according to Ikram Shinwari, a veteran Kabul-based journalist. “Qayyum Karzai is the president’s main lobbyist, meeting people in Afghanistan and abroad on the president’s behalf and active in gathering support from tribal and business leaders,” Shinwari said.

Yet, most analysts and politicians cautioned that it was too early to know if Qayyum Karzai would eventually get the nod to contest the presidential election, or even if he can win. According to Daud Sultanzai, the Afghan parliamentarian, other names in the presidential mix include Zalmay Khalilzad, the influential former US ambassador in Kabul; Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former interior minister; and Omar Daudzai, the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad who has previously served in Tehran.

More uncertainty

The pall of uncertainty and fear that hangs over much of Afghanistan extends to the future electoral scenario too.

Manipulation by the Karzai regime aside, analysts and politicians fear a host of other factors could undermine the presidential election, and stability afterwards: the resurrection of warlords; the April cold that could impact voter turnout in the north and northeast; and the Taliban.

“Much in Afghanistan is hostage to the warlords,” said Danish Karokhel, head of the Pajwak news agency, arguing that regional warlords could hijack the elections locally and undermine political stability.

Ikram Shinwari, the veteran journalist, cited the examples of Rashid Dostum and Ustad Muhaqqiq and argued their support could be the difference between a presidential candidate winning or losing nationally.

“Together they have two million votes in their pockets. Dostum has a million Uzbeks and Muhaqqiq has a million Hazaras and their support will be crucial for the winner.”

For Waheed Mujda, head of the BostBostan news network and a former Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami leader, the Taliban, who interfered minimally in the 2009 presidential election, could be a bigger factor the next time round.

“If the Taliban allow people to vote, there is a chance for a representative election,” Mujda said, adding, “Otherwise a non-Pashtun may win the presidency and that could be the nightmare scenario for Afghanistan by turning the current insurgency into an ethnic civil war.”