In the end, weeks of private negotiations among political players from ex-warlords to ex-diplomats, aimed at forging a new culture of consensus and ideas to replace ethnic and personality politics, fell far short of that lofty goal, leaving the pre-election picture as murky and mercurial as ever. Several analysts predicted that the coalition would not last more than a few weeks. The deadline for candidates to be declared is Oct. 6, and the campaign begins in December.
“It is a very confused situation. There is a lot of horse-trading but a lot of mistrust,” said Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former interior minister and longtime U.S. resident who is part of a separate, technocrat-based electoral coalition. “We all know that the survival of the state is at stake and the political structure has to change. But with only a few weeks before the deadline, we still have no idea who the candidates will be.”
The election is widely seen as a make-or-break moment for Afghanistan. A decade of tumultuous democratic rule under President Hamid Karzai is ending, and the country is entering an uncertain political era, as Taliban fighters continue waging an aggressive insurgency and Western troops start dwindling to a few thousand by next year.
In technical terms, the preparations are going relatively well. More than 350,000 new voters have been registered at hundreds of sites across the country, a new national election commission has been chosen, and information about potential candidates and issues has spread via cellphones, Facebook and Twitter across this vast and mountainous country, where winter snow can cut off half the population.
In political terms, though, the lack of any official candidates at this late date and the inconclusive rounds of talks among shifting rival groups have sparked fears of a repeat of the 2009 presidential race. Karzai won after the hodgepodge of opposition groups dickered until the last minute, and pro-government fraud badly tarnished the outcome.
Ahmed Zia Massoud, the brother of slain anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, has spearheaded the current grand coalition and is making an effort to avoid that scenario. Critics see the group as a tenuous marriage of convenience among longtime rivals, but its avowed agenda is to build political consensus and decentralize the government, rather than rely on the whims of powerful personalities and ethnic strongmen.