Blow for Karzai Election Bid

Split in a group supporting the president could harm his re-election campaign.

Blow for Karzai Election Bid

Split in a group supporting the president could harm his re-election campaign.

A key alliance supporting President Hamed Karzai’s re-election appears to be coming unglued with just ten days to go before the August 20 poll.

Junbish-e-Milli, the party and support base of Karzai ally General Abdul Rashid Dostum, has split, with a large and powerful arm campaigning openly for the president’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

When Karzai entered into the alliance with ethnic Uzbek strongman Dostum in late May, many saw it as a coup for both sides.

Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, at a stroke cemented his own position in the northern provinces, where Dostum holds sway, and undercut Abdullah, who was also courting the non-Pashtun electorate in the north.

Dostum has effectively been in exile in Turkey since last year but it had been assumed in Afghanistan that he would come home with a good chance of a role in any new Karzai administration.

The split throws into question Dostum’s plans for a speedy return and Karzai’s hoped-for secure first-round victory.

Just days ago, a major Abdullah rally in Maimana, the capital of the northern province of Faryab, featured prominent Junbish leaders. Their support strengthens what has already become a surprisingly robust challenge to Karzai’s seemingly unassailable re-election bid.

The split within Junbish dates from late July, when several of the party’s key figures abandoned the president.

“Karzai has had no achievements for the people of Afghanistan in the past seven years,” said Mawlawi Khabir, who calls himself the acting head of Junbish. “So I, along with other key figures of the party, after discussing this issue with our supporters, announce our endorsement of … Dr Abdullah.”

Those who had tried to steer Junbish towards Karzai were “frauds” and “tools in the hands of foreigners” added Khabir. Among them he named Sayed Noorullah, head of Junbish, along with Massoud Ahmad Massoud, head of the party’s youth branch, and several others.

“Without talking to the rest of us, and especially without consulting with the leader of our party, General Dostum, they announced their support for Karzai,” Khabir told IWPR. “They are misusing Junbish-e-Milli’s name, on their own initiative. They are selling our vote and the destiny of this party.”

Khabir’s main ally in his rebellion is Najibullah Salimi, who founded the youth movement of Junbish and still commands enormous power and respect within the organisation.

But Massoud Ahmad Massoud, the youth leader, rejected Khabir’s accusations, invoking the name of the founder to bolster his own position.

“I am every moment in contact with the founder and father of the Junbish party, General Dostum,” he said. “And the general has asked all of his supporters not to be deceived by these opportunists. He wants them all to work for the success of Karzai in the upcoming elections.”

Dostum himself is silent on the issue. He has been out of Afghanistan for much of the past year, since he had a very public altercation with a former ally, Mohammad Akbar Bai, that left Akbar Bai in hospital with internal injuries. Dostum has been quoted as denying the charges of violence and denying that he is in exile.

Neither side in the election dispute will confirm that Junbish-e-Milli, one of Afghanistan’s major parties, is in the process of a split or, worse, disintegration. But Afghan watchers say that it is hardly surprising that an organisation based solely on personal interest should fall apart once the central pillar – in this case, Dostum – was removed.

“These parties are not based on a real ideology,” said Mohammad Joyenda, a political analyst in the north. “Instead, they announce support for whoever promises them the most.”

According to Joyenda, support for Karzai came at a price: one branch of Junbish had received a considerable sum of money from the Karzai team, he added. But the funds had not been spread around, prompting another wing of the party to go searching for their own cash-cow.

Massoud confirmed the broad outlines of the deal, but not the particulars.

“There were frequently deals involving money conducted during the election campaign,” he told IWPR.

Afghanistan’s many parties – there are now more than 100 registered political groups - are often based more on ethnic, linguistic, or personal leanings than on ideology or a shared vision. This makes them particularly vulnerable to disintegration when interests or priorities shift.

But political analyst Ustad Sefuwat said that the alleged split might be no more than a savvy hedging of bets by the Junbish leadership.

“If Karzai wins, then one team will get power,” he said. “But if Abdullah becomes president, there will still be a Junbish faction on the scene.”

Karzai is still the clear favourite to win the poll, given the enormous advantages of his incumbency. He has been working hard for re-election over the past year or more, and many Afghans seem to be supporting him for no other reason than they want to be on the winning side.

But former foreign minister Abdullah has made a very strong showing over the past month, and the situation could still veer wildly to one side or the other.

Joyenda does not think that the split within Junbish will have a decisive affect on the election.

“Junbish is not in the position it was five years ago,” he told IWPR. “At that time hundreds of thousands of people, all of the Turkmen and Uzbeks, were supporting it. But several major disagreements and splits have lessened the trust people have in the party. People make their own decisions now. Before they had to listen to their leaders, otherwise they and their families could be in danger.”

Rameshgar, a writer and journalist in the north, agreed that Junbish had been weakened by many public spats and schisms over the years, as well as by a decrease in funding.

“When the money dried up many people left,” he said. “This process will continue.”

Dostum is a colourful and controversial figure within Afghanistan. He has a reputation for fierce, if unprincipled, fighting, having changed sides several times during Afghanistan’s long decades of war. He was one of the major government commanders under Najibullah, only to desert to the rebel mujahedin at the last moment. He switched factions often during the civil war, and no commander could ever be sure that Dostum was on his side.

He joined the central government in 2005, in the largely symbolic capacity of chief of staff to the commander in chief.

Mohammad Jawad, a student of political science at Balkh University, told IWPR that the split could be serious for the candidates, and possibly fatal for Junbish itself. With insecurity and apathy threatening to dampen the turnout among an estimated 17 million registered voters, every ballot counts.

“It is possible that Junbish is fading away,” he said. “And this could have a very big impact on the elections. If the Junbish vote is not divided, one million votes will go to whichever candidate Junbish supports.”

Ahmad Kawush is a pseudonym for an IWPR trainee in Mazar-e-Sharif.
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