No candidate has formally nominated but already favorites are emerging in the Afghanistan elections. With incumbent President Karzai looking as if he has involuntarily gone into "do not resuscitate" mode, it does beg the question: who in their right mind would want to run Afghanistan?
Two potential candidates are already getting a lot of media air (I will write about Ali Ahmad Jalali in my next post).
Dr. Ashraf Ghani has yet to announce his candidacy but his allegedly non-existent campaign seems to be gathering steam. It is safe to assume that he will run, even though his supporters remain circumspect about the prospect. Dr Ghani was Afghanistan's reform minded finance minister for two years. He is highly regarded in international circles, through his work at the World Bank, his professorship at Johns Hopkins University and his scholarly analysis of world economies. In 2006, he was widely rumored to be in the running to succeed Kofi Annan at the UN and was floated as a potential successor to Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank. He was in a high-level delegation of Afghan political figures who visited Obama officials in Washington in late January - (President Karzai didn't get the White House call until last week.)
So he is known among those who need to know. And on his side? Apparently (among others), there's Richard Holbrooke with whom he is good friends. That's a pretty heavy heavyweight to have in your corner.
Dr. Ghani emphasizes overhauling the collapsing economy and dragging Afghanistan out of the failed state miasma, partly through intense investment as opposed to badly aimed aid. If he hasn't announced that he's running, his recent interviews sure make it sound like he is. He emphasizes how disappointed most Afghans are with the disbursement of international aid, the rampant corruption, and the lack of any real progress.
"He has tremendous leadership and decision making skills that sets him apart from other potential candidates," says Harris Najib a graduate student and Fulbright Fellow at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. "He is well aware of the current socio-economic and political turmoil in Afghanistan. He is widely respected in the academia and the political circles in the US and Europe and has some unique yet practical ideas for a better Afghanistan."
Dr Ghani has a strong middle class following but, as with other potential candidates, questions remain as to whether he can create enough groundswell to get the national vote to swing in his favor. He is a Pashtun in a country riven with ethnic rivalries. However, Dr Ghani has potentially a greater problem, according to Hamdullah Mohib who first met Dr Ghani some years ago in London. It's his belief in smashing the old Afghan tradition of nepotism.
"Ashraf Ghani's supporters do not support him because he is from a certain ethnicity but because of his abilities," says Mr. Hamdullah. "Anyone who knows Ashraf Ghani, inside or outside Afghanistan, knows he bases his decisions on merits rather than who you know and that scares many because quite frankly many of them cannot compete in a merit based system."
Mr. Hamdullah, the Director of Information Technology at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul says that like many Afghans, he initially supported Hamid Karzai. He wonders now if expectations were perhaps too high, given that the country was a Grade A Basket Case when Mr. Karzai took over in 2002. The president has failed because of "the lack of planning [that has] left many flaws in the system which have now become a cancer to the government - such as the administrative corruption," says Mr. Hamdullah. "No one can deny that Karzai is a very charismatic leader who has done a lot for the country, but I think he has exhausted his resources, and Afghans are ready for a change."
Walid Tamin, a Kabul-based investment director, says he is disillusioned with most politicians and has yet to decide for whom he will vote. He is leaning towards Dr Ghani, for his "serious and committed" approach to development and social equity in Afghanistan. Mr. Tamin says Dr Ghani is a man of his word, who "once he says [it] he does it." However, he thinks that Dr Ghani's dual US/Afghanistan citizenship is "not liked by most Afghans" and that will be regarded negatively at the ballot box.
Will the West (aka the United States) be the kingmaker in the upcoming Afghanistan elections? All those interviewed were adamant that this was a decision for the Afghan people alone.
"Winning the trust of its people is the most important thing for any government and will be the key factor to the new administration as well, if it is to turn Afghanistan around," says Mr. Hamdullah. "My only real concern is just this; whether or not the new US administration can also respect the decisions of Afghans. While on the higher levels it may all be a political game, at the grassroots level people are struggling to survive every day, and then there are those who don't make it."
Update 2 March: After President Karzai called for the elections to be bought forward to April 21, Dr Ghani today announced, "I will not participate in sham elections in April. It would be legitimizing a Zimbabwe-type arrangement."
Dr Ghani expressed his concern that Afghans would not have time to debate and decide the future of their nation in time for an April poll.
Dr Ghani confirmed that he had made a decision to stand if the election had been held in August.
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