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Column: Afghans Face Stark Choice in Presidential Vote

An Afghan woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif, Apr. 5, 2014.
An Afghan woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif, Apr. 5, 2014.
As the field of presidential candidates has whittled from eleven to two, it has become clear that Afghans have a stark choice in the runoff this month.

It’s one between an established, old-guard candidate with more than 30 years of experience navigating internal Afghan politics and a moderate, Western-educated newcomer who is interested in change and progress.

What do we know about Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani?
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 14, 2014.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 14, 2014.
Abdullah, 54, is trained as an ophthalmologist, who received his medical doctor’s degree at Kabul University’s Department of Medicine. He has long been involved in Afghan politics, joining the resistance following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Abdullah won 45 percent of the vote in the general election. He will be facing Ashraf Ghani, who won 31.6 percent of the votes in the April 5 election.
Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai addresses a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, May 15, 2014
Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai addresses a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, May 15, 2014
Ghani is a relative newcomer to Afghan politics. He was in the United States, earning his cultural anthropology when pro-Communists came to power and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Ghani remained an academic in the United States until joining the World Bank in 1991. Ghani returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, working on the transition to a new, popularly elected government.

Both Abdullah and Ghani were members at various points of the outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet. Abdullah served as the Foreign Minister and Ghani as the Finance Minister.

A longtime close companion and adviser of the Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, Abdullah both benefits and is adversely affected by that association.
A recognized name with a noted history of fighting the Soviets with the opposition Northern Alliance, Abdullah has widespread support among former partisans.

But his history with the Northern Alliance during the Soviet occupation and the subsequent Afghan civil war makes Abdullah subject to criticism and is considered by some Afghans a continuation of the status quo.

Both men ran for president of Afghanistan in 2009.

Abdullah finished second to current President Hamid Karzai and qualified for a runoff after the discovery of fraudulent ballots caused Karzai’s vote count to fall below 50 percent.

But Abdullah refused to go to a second round and conceded the election.

Hindsight gives insight

In an interview with the VOA Afghanistan Service in February 2014, Abdullah said that his experience and learning from the mistakes of his last campaign would help him win the election.

Ghani finished a distant fourth in the 2009 election with less than 3 percent of the vote.

This year, as in 2009, he relied on his education and experience in the Western world to run a campaign specifically against “business as usual” in Afghan politics.
His status as a relative newcomer carries with it a hopeful promise of change, but also carries charges of him being too far removed from Afghan history and concerns.

Ghani’s experience working as a World Bank officer in a number of conflict zones is considered by many to be his chief advantage in the election.

With an economy mainly supported by international monies, Afghanistan is desperate for leadership that deals with corruption.

With his background, Ghani can implement economic policies for growth and job creation.

Choosing sides

In a February 2014 interview with VOA, Ghani emphasized the importance of rule of law as Afghanistan transitions to greater economic independence in the coming years. His supporters consider Ghani a voice of change, moderation, and modernization in Afghanistan.

As the election hangs in the balance, major players wheel and deal in the background.

Candidates who did not garner enough votes to participate in the runoff are choosing sides and allying themselves with either Abduallah or Ghani.

Zalmay Rassoul, the candidate supported by Karzai finished third in the general election. He endorsed Abdullah during a formal ceremony.

Notably absent from that ceremony was Rassoul’s running-mate, Ahmad Zia Massoud, the brother of the assassinated Northern Alliance commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

But instead of supporting his late brother’s ally, Massoud threw his support to Ghani.

Another presidential candidate, fifth place finisher Gul Agha Sherzai, threw his support behind Abdullah. But half of Sherzai’s party has split.

Abdul Rab Rasool Sayaf, the leader of one of the Soviet era mujahideen factions, who finished fourth in the general elections, has announced his support for Abdullah.

In addition to currying favor by seeking powerful alliances with the other candidates, both Abdullah and Ghani have announced key members of their tickets in order to cast a wider net for support.

Abdullah has selected friends from his Jihadi days—former Hizb-e-Islami (Islamic Party) Intelligence Chief Engineer Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun from Ghazni Province, as his first vice prresident; and as the second vice president, Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq a Hazara Shiaa from Bamiyan province.

Ghani put forward General Abdul Rashid Dustom, an Uzbek from Jawzjan province, and Sarwar Danish, a Hazara Shiaa who was a former Minister of Education, as his two running-mates.

With their choices, both candidates reveal the necessity of balancing interests along mujahideen, ethnic, and religious lines.

Challenges ahead

Whoever prevails will face some major challenges as president.

Both men consider security a major concern and have addressed the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban.

“It depends on what they want,” Abdullah said in an interview with VOA’s Afghan Service. “Are they in favor of a negotiated settlement or not? If the Taliban or the majority of them think that a continuation of war is the solution, then no, peace will not prevail and the wishes of the majority of Afghans will not be fulfilled.”

Abdullah added that the outcome of talks with the Taliban depends on Pakistan. He said if Pakistan decides that the training nests of terrorists have to be eliminated, then it might be possible to have peace,” adding that giving up hard fought rights for women and education cannot be the price for peace and security for Afghans.

In an interview with VOA, Ghani said that Taliban concerns about the presence of international forces should not be linked to talks.

“Yes, as soon as the talks start, the international forces will be out," he said. "They are in Afghanistan for a reason and the reason is lack of peace and security. As soon as security is maintained, they will leave."

Both Abdullah and Ghani have said that, unlike President Karzai, they will sign the Bilateral Strategic Agreement with the U.S., which has been a sticking point of ruffled relations between Kabul and Washington.

By all accounts, given the changing landscape of last-minute alliances, the election is entirely up for grabs and could go either way.