Rivals launch political marathon in Afghanistan

January 21, 2019

A confident and relaxed President Ashraf Ghani launched his reelection campaign Sunday, registering as a candidate at the national election commission and then delivering a lengthy speech on peace, poverty and the need for a strong government to unite all Afghans and end 17 years of insurgent conflict in a “just and honorable” way.

The Afghan election, in which Ghani will face 14 contenders after five tumultuous years in office, is now scheduled for July 20 after being postponed from April. The race will be dominated, and in some ways overshadowed, by ongoing efforts to start peace talks with Taliban insurgents, who have so far refused to negotiate with Ghani’s government and insisted on dealing only with U.S. officials, while continuing to wage attacks across the country.

Ghani’s performance Sunday, the deadline for candidates to register, was bolstered by the presence of his surprise running mate for first vice president, Amrullah Saleh, a tough former national intelligence chief whom Ghani appointed as his new interior minister just three weeks ago. Saleh gave a briefer, sterner speech, vowing to end high-level “bullying” and “impunity” and to settle the war on terms that are “acceptable to all Afghans.” Ghani’s wife Rula stood silently at the president’s side.

The president is expected to encounter stiff competition, including several individuals who were once senior officials in his government. The most formidable is his former national security adviser, Mohammed Hanif Atmar, 51, a respected official who resigned abruptly in October. Atmar announced his candidacy on Friday with a stinging speech that blamed Ghani for running a failed one-man government and plunging the country into crisis. He has been endorsed by a variety of influential political figures.

A second senior member of Ghani’s administration, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, announced his candidacy Sunday morning, just in time to register as the nominee for the major opposition party, Jamiat-i-Islami. Speaking at the election commission, Abdullah said he hoped the race would not create “hostility or humiliation,” but he, too, criticized Ghani for “monopolizing” power and breaking promises, and he stressed that he would behave differently.

Abdullah, 58, was Ghani’s top rival in the 2014 election, which was derailed by massive fraud. They were forced to form a joint government to prevent a political crisis, but their relationship was strained. Fraud remains a major concern for the upcoming election, and both Abdullah and other candidates have called for a revamping and reform of the national election commission and the electoral complaint commission.

Other prominent candidates include Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief who leads an umbrella of reform-minded political and civic groups; Zalmai Rassoul, who served as national security adviser and foreign minister under President Hamid Karzai; Ahmad Wali Massoud, a brother of the late anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban militia leader Ahmad Shah Massoud; and Noor ul-Haq Oloomi, a former army general and member of parliament. 

A wild-card candidate who entered the race on Saturday is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former anti-Soviet militia leader who became a longtime fugitive after being accused of numerous abuses and sanctioned by the United Nations and the United States. He was brought back to Kabul last year under a peace deal with Ghani that officials hoped would inspire the Taliban to follow suit. A polarizing figure, Hekmatyar is as an independent.

(Source: Washington Post)

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