KABUL — With 2,000 supporters crammed into a chandeliered hotel ballroom Thursday, a dozen of Afghanistan’s most powerful men gathered to announce that they had formed a “grand coalition” to contest presidential elections in April and would announce a single candidate in the next several weeks.
But the event, delayed by a faulty sound system and a chaotic seating plan, seemed to go wrong in other ways, too. The row of leaders seated onstage, mostly former militia bosses from northern Afghanistan, did not include the several prominent technocrats and new faces that many invitees had hoped to see. The applause was tepid, and the rush to lunch was swift.
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.
“We have a strong central government now, but it hasn’t been able to deliver services or security to the people,” Massoud said in an interview this week. “We need a smarter, more flexible system that will create a better balance of powers and strengthen political parties. Our door is open to anyone who wants to join us.”
But many of the leaders whom Massoud’s group invited to participate have shunned it or remained ambivalent, including leading technocrats such as Jalali, former interior minister Hanif Atmar and Ashraf Ghani, Karzai’s former finance minister. In some cases, analysts said, this is due to ethnic rivalries and mistrust of former northern militia leaders, including Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, who wore his signature green cape as he sat in the place of honor next to Massoud on Thursday. In the 2009 election, Dostum joined the same opposition leaders but switched to supporting Karzai at the last minute.
In other cases, analysts said, it is because Karzai, who cannot run for a third term, is trying to woo potential candidates as allies, especially those from his southern Pashtun ethnic group, in hopes of remaining a shadow president with influence over a handpicked winner. Publicly, Karzai has denied that he will promote any candidate, but the betting is on his foreign minister, Zalmay Rassoul.
“Karzai still wants to try to be the savior of Afghanistan, even from outside the palace,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, head of the independent Free and Fair Election Foundation. “He is trying to break strong coalitions by promising various people he will back them and keep the status quo. But Afghans are fed up with the status quo,” Nadery said. “They want a strong leader, but not at the price of reform.”
Somewhat surprisingly, a similar opinion emerged among attendees at Thursday’s coalition launch. Hundreds of former militiamen and tribal elders paid formal respect to the leaders onstage, including Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister who lost to Karzai in 2009 and could emerge as the coalition’s candidate. But many seemed eager for change and disappointed that the new lineup was not broader.
A turbaned tribal elder from Paktika province said he thought Jalali and Ghani would make good candidates and wondered why they were not there. A former militia commander from Parwan province said he was fed up with the Karzai government and hoped that any coalition candidate would bring peace and security.
But later, after watching the array of former militia bosses onstage, the man’s tone changed abruptly. “I don’t trust anyone up there,” he said bitterly. “These are the people who destroyed our country. They should all be thrown down a well.”