Ethnic Divisions and Alliances in the Afghan Elections

April 1, 2014 Updated: April 1, 2014

As the April 5 Afghan presidential elections draw closer, there is a growing consensus among most analysts that there will be a runoff vote and that ethnic groups will firmly ally themselves with a particular candidate in this second round of voting.

Many observers believe that President Hamid Karzai is hoping for his preferred candidate, Zalmai Rassoul,[1] to be the runner-up in the first round and face Abdullah Abdullah, who is widely seen as the front-runner, in the second round. This is only possible if Rassoul is able to obtain more votes than a third candidate, Ashraf Ghani. In other words, the first round of voting is likely to see tough competition between Rassoul and Ghani.

As the young Afghan democracy is centered on ethnicity rather than political platforms due to 20 years of ethnic divisions, the next leader of the country will be decided by who has the maximum support of the country’s major ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. This factor played a leading role in the 2009 presidential elections. Karzai enjoyed the support of these groups, which helped win him the presidency despite allegations of widespread vote rigging.

Abdullah, though half Pashtun, is considered to represent the Tajiks and the legacy of the legendary anti-Soviet Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, with whom he was close. His main running mate is prominent Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq, who enjoys substantial support within his ethnic group. Hazaras traditionally vote in large numbers compared to other ethnic groups.

Rassoul is less familiar with the complex clan system of the rural Pashtuns though he himself is Pashtun. Rassoul is also not a fluent Pashto speaker, and it is widely believed that Karzai’s deep knowledge of complex Pashtun tribal intricacies will allow him to control Rassoul. Ghani has some support from Pashtuns, but more from Uzbeks, as his running mate is the powerful Uzbek warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Thus, none of the current candidates have the full support of the four major ethnic groups, at least in the first round of voting.

The situation in the second round could dramatically change, when ethnic alliances solidify. But instead of all groups generally pulling for one candidate, as in the 2009 elections, if the majority of non-Pashtun running mates of various candidates align themselves with Abdullah, it could exacerbate ethnic tensions and divide the country into two camps: one representing the Pashtuns, the largest and most dominant ethnic group, and the other representing the smaller ethnic groups that collectively outnumber the Pashtuns. Another factor adding to ethnic divisions is the March death of Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a Tajik aligned with Karzai who was considered a bridge between Pashtuns and Tajiks.

If Rassoul does not qualify for the second round, Ghani will acquire more Pashtun support and Abdullah will have the backing of most Tajiks and Hazaras. In this potential situation, Rassoul’s running mates, a Tajik leader named Ahmad Zia Massoud and the Hazara politician Habiba Sarabi, would likely support Abdullah, who has been their traditional ally. Similarly, if Ghani does not advance to the second round, chances are good that his Uzbek running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, may choose to support Abdullah, as the two are leaders of the National Front of Afghanistan and share many similar points of view. If Dostum explicitly supports Abdullah, it would be very hard for Rassoul to win the elections.

Another important running mate is Ismail Khan, traditionally known as the emir of the western province of Herat. Khan is the vice presidential running mate of Abdul Rasul Sayaf, a former Islamist warlord who has very little chance of success in the election. Khan, a Tajik leader, has some support in the west and was closely allied to Abdullah and Ahmad Shah Massoud during the wars against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. Given this history, Khan may support Abdullah or choose to remain neutral in the second round. In both cases most of his supporters may vote for Abdullah.

As many Afghans are increasingly worried about a future without international support, Abdullah’s more explicit support for the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which would allow for U.S. troops to remain in the country after 2014, may also help him procure more votes. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Abdullah even gave a time frame for when he would sign the BSA: “I think that [at] maximum it has to be signed within a month,” he said.[2]

One of the biggest challenges during the elections will be dealing with security threats, as the Taliban warned in early March that they would use their full force to disrupt the elections. And indeed, throughout the month the Taliban launched several attacks in various parts of the country, including Kabul, killing many Afghans and a number of foreigners. One of the worst attacks took place at the luxury Serena Hotel in Kabul on March 21 during Nowruz, in which nine civilians were killed. Due to these attacks, some may not come out to vote, particularly in the Pashtun-dominated parts of the south and east, although enthusiasm for the elections is as high in these areas as it is in other parts of the country.

Yet many Afghans believe that the real danger is vote rigging by Karzai’s supporters, who control the government machinery. Allegations of rigging and ballot box stuffing by Karzai’s supporters in the 2009 elections led to serious concerns that chaos would overwhelm the country. The situation calmed when Abdullah pulled out of the runoff, allowing Karzai an undisputed win. But this time, if vote rigging and ballot box stuffing take place on a large scale, the country may descend into civil war that could erase the gains of the last 12 years. Some analysts are predicting that if the government machinery is accused of vote rigging in favor of Karzai’s favored candidate, no one will be able to prevent Tajik supporters of Abdullah from taking to the streets to stage violent protests.



[1] Afghan media reports suggest that Karzai even dissuaded his own brother, Qayum Karzai, from running in favor of Rassoul.

[2] Kim Gamel, “AP Interview: Afghan Candidate Vows Better U.S. Ties,” Associated Press, 13 March 2014.

This article was originally published at the Middle East Institute.