ISLAMABAD - A leading Afghan presidential candidate suspended his campaign Thursday, casting increasing doubt that the elections will be held as scheduled on Sept. 28.
Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a former national security adviser to President Ashraf Ghani, had emerged as one of his leading contenders in the coming presidential polls. Atmar's campaign has cited security issues as well as the ongoing peace process as reasons for the suspension.
Even though the Atmar campaign was mired in internal disputes, the announcement comes as another blow to an election already in doubt.
A few days ago, the Taliban issued a statement calling the elections “nothing more than a ploy to deceive the common people” and threatening to target election rallies.
A deal between the United States and Taliban could be reached this month, possibly announcing a timeline for a U.S. troop withdrawal from the country and paving the way to the start of intra-Afghan talks. A 15-member team from Afghanistan that includes representatives of various political factions, including the government, women, minorities, and civil society is expected to negotiate the future of Afghanistan with the Taliban, including possible changes in the constitution.
“If an intra-Afghan track of the peace process opens (i.e., negotiations between the government and Taliban), then there may be a decision to postpone elections, ideally to ultimately accommodate the Taliban participating in the electoral process,” said Richard Olson, a former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The elections have already been delayed twice and Ghani faces severe criticism from his opponents, many of whom call his continuation in his position illegal, given that his term expired on May 22. The Afghan Supreme Court ruled that Ghani could continue until the next election.
A number of presidential candidates said they do not trust the Afghan electoral commission to hold the next elections in a transparent manner. The Council of Presidential Candidates, which includes 13 of 18 candidates, has demanded that Ghani remove recently-appointed government officials they say are loyal to the president, fearing election fraud.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the elections, only six out of the 18 presidential candidates have so far launched their campaigns.
Candidate Muhammad Shahab Hakimi told the non-profit Afghanistan Analysts Network group that the coalition of candidates had suggested to Tadamichi Yamamoto, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, the possibility of enacting “a delay [in the elections] and a caretaker government.”
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a militant leader who signed a peace deal with Ghani’s government in 2016 and is now a presidential candidate, expressed doubts that the elections would be held, saying if there was a chance for peace, that would take priority.
Ghani, who hopes to win a second term, maintains the elections will go forward as planned.
The risk with holding the elections on time, said Michael Kugelman of Washington-based research group the Wilson Center, is that it would “distract from a peace process that has more momentum than ever before.” He added that if elections took place, the outcome would “likely be inconclusive as there would be lots of fraud allegations.” He said such a scenario could lead to a major new political crisis at the very time when attention needed to be focused on the peace process.
Much would depend, however, on the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue.
“If there is no intra-Afghan negotiation, [it is] hard to see why the government would give up elections, in effect for nothing,” Olson said.