Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghans Choose a President

Second round pits Abdullah Abdullah against Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
By IWPR Afghanistan
  • Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. (Photos: US embassy Kabul/Flickr)
    Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. (Photos: US embassy Kabul/Flickr)

On June 14, Afghans will decide which of two candidates will become their next president. In the first round of voting held on April 5, Abdullah Abdullah won 45 per cent of the vote, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai 32 per cent, and the other candidates were a long way behind. Because no one got 50 per cent of the vote, a run-off was called.

Despite heavy rain, turnout in round one was exceptional, at about 60 per cent of registered voters, and Afghan security forces were praised for warding off serious insurgent attacks. (See Euphoria at Afghan Poll Security Success.)

Some commentators fear that turnout will be lower this time as some voters tire of the long-drawn out electoral process and others fear an upsurge in Taleban attacks as the summer “fighting season” gets under way. (New Fears Over Afghan Election Run-Off)

There are emerging concerns that the second round could see people voting along ethnic lines – Abdullah is half-Pashtun but is widely perceived as reflecting Tajik-led political and regional interests; Ashraf Ghani is Pashtun. Another factor that might depress turnout is that the first vote was held concurrently with provincial council elections, which will have attracted those voters more immediately concerned about local issues.  

The two candidates are profiled below.

Abdullah Abdullah

A former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah came second in the 2009 presidential election with more than 30 per cent of the vote but withdrew from a head-to-head run-off with the incumbent Hamed Karzai, claiming he lacked confidence that the ballot would be free and fair.

Born in 1959, Abdullah is a trained ophthalmologist who left Afghanistan in 1985 to work for a refugee hospital in Pakistan. Shortly afterwards, he joined the Jamiat-e Islami faction and became a senior aide to its military commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Abdullah was in charge of foreign affairs for the shadow government led by Burhanuddin Rabbani in northern Afghanistan in 1999-2001, and became foreign minister in the post-Taleban administration.

Leaving government in 2006, he moved into opposition and became leader of the National Coalition of Afghanistan.

As Massoud’s spokesman, Abdullah worked closely with international journalists, and in the period after 2001, he was often interviewed as he is fluent in French and English.

Abdullah is half-Tajik and half-Pashtun, and he has chosen Hazara and Pashtun politicians as his first and second vice-presidents in the event that he wins. The former is Hajji Mohammad Mohaqeq, a former commander from the Hezb-e Wahdat faction, made up of Shia Hazaras. His second vice-president would be Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun formerly with Hezb-e Islami.

Mohammad Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

Ashraf Ghani is a former anthropology professor and World Bank executive who has done extensive work on rebuilding nation states. Following the defeat of the Taleban in 2001, he served as special advisor to United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and helped draw up the Bonn Agreement that shaped structures for the new Afghan state. He went on to serve as finance minister in the transitional government.

He stood in the 2009 presidential election and came fourth.

Currently chairman of the Institute of State Effectiveness, which he founded in 2005, he was recently ranked second in the Prospect magazine’s World Thinkers list.

As well as being a technocrat, Ashraf Ghani is a member of an influential family within the Ahmadzai, a powerful Pashtun tribe. His brother Hashmat Ghani is a tribal leader and heads the council of Afghan nomadic tribes; he too wanted to run for president but was disqualified in October.

Ashraf Ghani has defended himself against the perception that lacks the ability to connect with voters, telling Al-Jazeera that he was “immersed” in Afghanistan and shunned the kind of heavy security that would cut him off from ordinary people.

His choice of first vice-president is a prime example of the kind of coalition-building that candidates have resorted to. In this case, though, the presence of Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum on the ballot paper could also alienate many voters, given his role in past conflicts. Sarwar Danish, a former justice minister of Hazara background, is Ashraf Ghani’s second choice.