Two Afghan Candidate Profiles

In the Wall Street Journal of 13 August 2009, Ann Marlowe profiles two of the leading candidates campaigning to replace Karzai as president.

It was midnight this past Sunday when I left the house of Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai’s leading challenger for the presidency of Afghanistan. Twenty or so men were still waiting to see the candidate, some sitting cross-legged in the grassy courtyard.

When I arrived at 10:30 p.m., one dignitary after another filed into the meeting room: a finance executive, a counter-narcotics official, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and a female professor at Kabul University. Lesser notables spilled out into the courtyard of the concrete villa, some in Western garb, some in traditional dress. Earlier, the diplomat brother of the slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud came to pay his respects.

These Afghans don’t believe the line the foreign press is pushing—that Mr. Karzai has the election sewn up. With 10 days until the vote, they’ve come to offer help or cut deals, believing that they’re backing the winner.

Dr. Abdullah, 49 years old, is an ophthalmologist and a former foreign minister of Afghanistan who entered politics by organizing medical care for the Afghan resistance after the Soviet invasion in 1979. He’s running on a platform of overhauling the 2002 Afghan Constitution. He advocates a parliamentary system, political parties, and direct elections of mayors and provincial governors. (They’re currently appointed by the president.)

Dr. Abdullah has single-handedly turned this election into a much-needed referendum on governance. How much direct democracy is enough? When is a people “mature” enough to elect its leaders? Is legitimacy derived from an election, from performance, or from the power of the gun? These are questions that resonate in Afghanistan as much as they do for Americans considering the merits of democracy promotion overseas….

Mr. Ghani, 60 years old, has focused his campaign on bread-and-butter issues. As finance minister, he started the much-lauded National Solidarity Program for rural development, which introduced economic policies like privatization, a flat tax and a rational tariff system. He is an expert on development economics, and is renowned for his incorruptibility.

But it isn’t clear that Mr. Ghani’s solutions match Afghanistan’s most pressing problems. Foreign journalists tend to focus on rural Afghan poverty. Yet the standard of living for those in towns and cities (about one-third of the population) has improved greatly after nearly a decade of 5%-10% annual GDP growth.

Afghanistan expects 8.5% GDP growth in the fiscal year ending March 2010, up from 3.5% last year, according to Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal. Afghans are natural capitalists, and, thanks in part to Mr. Ghani, they have laws that allow them to prosper. What they lack is laws that allow them to govern themselves effectively.

Mr. Ghani told me in an interview on Aug. 5 that he believes the problem isn’t with the constitution but with corruption. Dr. Abdullah told me he disagrees. He points to the single nontransferable vote electoral system, in which requirements for candidates are so low that dozens compete for one slot. This system has produced members of parliament with only a few percent of the vote. There’s also the lack of accountability of governors and mayors.

Dr. Abdullah’s fundamental point is that good institutions are more important than goodwill. “Even if a person does not want to abuse power,” Dr. Abdullah tells me, “others around him will.” This is a not-so-veiled reference to Mr. Karzai’s brothers. One is an alleged drug dealer and another allegedly demands kickbacks. Then there’s Mr. Ghani’s brother Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, the wealthy chief of the Ahmadzai tribe and an MP notorious for his belligerence.

Is a relatively peaceful (by Afghan standards) transition after a democratic election too much to hope for?

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