A new Afghanistan?
By Imtiaz Gul
The Friday Times, April 18, 2014
The vote count in Afghanistan is still on. Initial official but partial results by its Independent Election Commission (IEC) appear to put Dr Abdullah Abdullah ahead of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, with Zalmay Rassoul, the Karzai favourite, trailing way behind. The partial outcome has also triggered speculations in Kabul that Rassoul and the other presidential candidate Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf are now considering to give their votes to either of the two frontrunners to help them pass the fifty percent vote target to avoid a runoff election.
Whatever transpires on May 24 when the Election Commission announces the final results, these elections clearly marked a major step forward in Afghanistan’s transition from tribalism to quasi-democratic way of handling issues.
The unusually big turn-out clearly underscored a thumping rejection of: a) violence, mounted by the Taliban since 2001, b) President Hamid Karzai’s legacy (Zalmay Rassoul), and c) leaders whose past is either stained with blood or the flag-bearers of the Salafi brand of Islam personified by Professor Sayyaf.
By coming out in droves to cast their vote during the relatively peaceful electoral exercise, nearly sixty percent of the 12 million eligible voters essentially snubbed Taliban warnings. Observers have reported that even in areas like Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, there was a surprisingly high turnout despite serious security challenges posed by the insurgents. Local officials estimated 350,000 votes polled in April 5 while the number was a little less than 250,000 in the 2009 presidential elections. This underlines not only a sense of defiance but also people’s confidence in the new evolving system.
Speaking to reporters after the announcement of partial results by IEC, Ashraf Ghani said that the successful presidential vote sent a strong message to the international community that Afghans are for democracy contrary to the image of their nation being projected around the world. “I am proud to be counted as an Afghan citizen and to be a participant in a process that is transforming the nature of politics and the nature of societal interactions in this country.”
Observers also noticed a change and traditional voter behavior because unlike in the past, people seemed to have voted without giving consideration to tribal politics and social relationships – something that dominated the previous elections in Afghanistan.
Beside better security arrangements by the nascent Afghan national army and police forces, the killing of an Afghan journalists along with his wife and two kids on the eve of the presidential election in a coordinated brutal Taliban attack on Kabul’s Serena Hotel also appear to have provoked a negative reaction among people at large. The Afghan media effectively boycotted coverage of the Islamist group, which would have discouraged voters.
In fact, the unity of the Afghan media over attacks on journalists might serve as a lesson for Pakistani media groups, most of who have been going out of their way to provide coverage to those religious militants and hardliners who don’t believe in the state of Pakistan.
The boycott forced Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, to send out email messages, especially to regional and international media outlets, urging them to follow his twitter account for quick updates on purported “Taliban attacks to disrupt the election.”
Unsurprisingly, the Taliban rejected the elections, saying no such process could enjoy legitimacy as long as foreign troops were present on the Afghan soil. “We do not recognize any president or any government as a legitimate one and will continue our struggle and resistance,” said Mujahid.
Irrespective of Taliban’s claims one thing is certain: while the Taliban reject the electoral results, people have rejected both the Taliban’s ways of violence as well as the Karzai legacy. His rule since early 2002 has been tainted with abuse of power, nepotism, corruption, and shifting stances, witnessed and experienced by an entire generation of new voters in their 20s. Tens of thousands of new women voters, particularly in the urban centres such as Kabul, Mazare Sharif, Jalalabad, and Herat, also got the opportunity to speak through the ballot.
One tends to assume that most of the youth and female vote in these urban power centres possibly went either in favour of Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani, because the proliferation of print and electronic media has helped highlight the ills of the past decade.
That is why despite the concerns ahead of the 2014 foreign troop pullout, there is also hope that Afghanistan will be better in 2015 than it was in 2014, and its political and security dispensation will not crumble in the face of obscurantist jihadists.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India