WASHINGTON— The two frontrunners in Afghanistan’s presidential election will start political campaigning on Thursday in their final bid to succeed President Hamid Karzai.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former Afghan foreign minister and anti-Taliban figure who won 45 percent of votes in the inconclusive first round, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former John Hopkins University lecturer who secured 31.56 percent, are competing in the runoff. Each of the two presidential hopefuls has two running mates, and none is a female.
Amidst rampant insecurity and intimidation about seven million voters – almost 60 percent of registered voters turned out for the first round of the election on April 5. Thirty-four percent of voters were women, according to Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (IEC).
The political campaigning will go on until 11 June followed by two days of “silence” and the nationwide polling will be conducted on June 14.
In a bid to increase the turnout, IEC officials have decided to open more than 4,000 new voting stations across the country. The democratic exercise will cost$18 million which has been provided by donors such as the U.S.
Preliminary election results will be announced on July 2 and after a two-week complaint and adjudication process, final results will be announced on July 22. By early August, if all things go as planned, the new Afghan president will be inaugurated.
At the top of the next Afghan president’s agenda will be signing the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Washington which will pave the way for thousands of U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014. President Karzai has refused to sign the BSA saying the U.S. must help kickstart peace talks with the Taliban and restore stability in Afghanistan before he would sign.
Aside from Taliban threats, some observers fear the runoff could exacerbate ethnic tensions and push Afghanistan towards political crisis at a critical time.
Despite his mixed ethnic roots Dr. Abdullah, the leading candidate, is widely referred to as a Tajik candidate with historic antagonism towards the Taliban, a mostly Pashtun insurgent group fighting the Afghan Government. Some Afghans are concerned that Dr. Abdullah’s victory could push Pashtuns away from the government in Kabul and make some consider joining the Taliban, the Washington Post reported on May 18.
The other leading candidate, Ashraf Ghani, is perceived to have mostly Pashtun and Uzbek endorsements but he lacks support among Tajiks, Afghanistan’s second largest ethnic minority.
“We’re particularly concerned about the ethnicization of the election in the second round,” Jandad Spenghar, director of an Afghan election watchdog, told VOA adding that the number of people voting on an ethnic basis would be higher than others.
“Further intensification of ethnic divisions would create an environment for fraud and challenge the entire process,” Spenghar warned.
Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and current President of the American Academy of Diplomacy, said the runoff would not be competed entirely on ethnic lines because several Pashtun politicians had endorsed Dr. Abdullah.
“The danger is still there,” Neumann added.
As candidates launch their political campaigns the Taliban have vowed they would embark on a terror campaign by attacking election workers campaign offices, candidates and voters.
The turnout of about seven million voters in the first round has largely been interpreted as a strategic failure by the Taliban and the insurgent group has reportedly appointed a new operational commander to try disrupting the runoff on June 14.
“The enemy wants to revenge for their failure in the first round,” Umer Daudzai, Afghan interior minister, said on Wednesday in a meeting of police officials from all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan.
Daudzai said Afghan security forces stand ready to secure the runoff but on the same day over a dozen Afghan police forces were killed in Taliban attacks in different parts of the country.
The U.S. has spent tens of millions of dollars on the Afghan elections but there is not much Washington can do to quell the political challenges facing the Afghan election runoff, according to Ronald Neumann.
“It’s really now in the hands of Afghans. Afghans spent a long time wondering whether the foreigners would take their hands off and the answer is yes,” Neumann said.