Kandahar: Home of rising leaders. (Photo: Khalil Rahman Omaid)
For hundreds of years, Kandahar has been a breeding ground for rulers in Afghanistan. From the first Durrani kings who ruled Afghanistan from 1747 and more recently to several high-profile Taliban leaders and the incumbent President Karzai, the southern province, one of Afghanistan's most dangerous and populated, has always held the keys to power.
Twenty-four hours before thousands of Afghan polling centres open their doors to between 12 and 21 million voters, volatile Kandahar remains key to the outcome of the presidential election. The historical influence of the dynastic Durrani tribe - which in turn is divided into two sub-sections, Zeerak an Panjpa - continues to make its impact felt in this election, if not in terms of tribal voting, then certainly in terms of links.
Land of kings
Zalmai Rassoul, himself a Kandahari from the dynastic Durrani people, was keen to stress the importance of his home region when campaigning in Kandahar City last month.
"Kandahar is the only province which can play an important role in the political transition in the country," Rassoul told thousands of followers. "Kandahar has embraced and raised many Afghan leaders in its arms, and Kandahar's people's participation in the up-and-coming elections will be decisive."
And indeed it should be. Two different candidates claim links to Kandahar: Gul Agha Sherzai and Zalmai Rassoul. Rassoul however is often derided for talking Pashto with an accent while others do not consider the former finance minister as indigenous to Kandahar because he was born in Kabul but lived much of his adult life abroad.
Sherzai's indigenous Kandahari credentials stand up to scrutiny and the 'bulldozer' has a good support base in the region having been governor in the early 1990s and from 2001 to 2003. Two other Kandahari candidates, Sardar Naim and Qayum Karzai, withdrew and threw their support behind Rassoul. Given that Sherzai has little or no chance of winning the election, Kandahar's influence may be most felt behind the scenes in deciding between Zalmai Rassoul, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the three presidential favourites.
Gul Agha Sherzai, former governor of Kandahar and later Nangarhar, seen here at a rally last month in Mazar-e Sharif, is the only remaining presidential candidate who was born in Kandahar Province. (Photo: Asghar Noor Mohammad)
The Durrani ethnic grouping is large and encompasses several sub-divisions. Barekzai, Popalzai, Alokozai, Mohammadzai and Sadozai are sub-tribes of Zeerak. Noorzai, Eshakzai, Alizai, Adozai and Mako are sub-tribes of Panjpaa. Each has formed its own alliances or support groups according to the choices of its leaders.
The family of President Karzai, of the Popalzai Durrani sub-division, have interests in land, minerals and various industries and remain influential power brokers in the region.Their support for candidates could be key.
President Karzai himself has not officially announced a preference for any candidate although he is believed to support Zalmai Rassoul. Yet even within the same family, politics can run thicker than blood. Hashmat Khalil Karzai and his brother Hekmat Karzai, two of President Karzai’s cousins and influential individuals in the southern region, are supporting Rassoul's rival Ashraf Ghani.
Other powerful brokers, such as Kaleemullah Naqib, the son of late Jihadi commander Mullah Naqibullah, and now the tribal chief of the Alokozai clan - one of the major Durrani subdivisions - is supporting Abdullah Abdullah. Most of the Barekzai tribe supports Gul Agha Sherzai.
Blood line votes
This patchy mosaic of support drawn along tribal lines makes it difficult to prognosticate a winner. Rather than predict one, seasoned observers are quick to stress how local voting patters will affect the outcome.
“Pashtuns in Afghanistan, or particularly in Kandahar, leave major decisions to their elders and tribal chiefs to make. So whatever these leaders decide, the rest of their people will accept them," says Hayatullah Rafiqi, a Kandahar University lecturer.
“I can say with certainty that the support of Kandahar tribes from different candidates will divide people’s vote among these candidates, because the people will vote for the candidate who is supported by their tribal elders," adds Rafiqi with conviction.
Yet despite a historical pattern of voting along ethnic and tribal lines, many election observers believe the development of an urban and educated population in the last 13 years means that people will vote with key issues in mind, not blood lines.
Strongman of any tribe wanted to fight insurgency
Supporters of Zalmai Rassoul at a mid-March rally in Kandahar. (Photo: Nang Durrani)
"This is no longer an era in which people in Kandahar would vote based on ethnicity, tribe, and language," says Agha Lali Destgeri, a member of Kandahar Provincial Council. "The people in Kandahar have learned that they would only vote for the candidate who will put Kandahar's security as his top priority. Kandaharis want security and peace."
Some say the historic jirga decision making process, in which tribal elders and traditional leaders gather to settle on important disputes or resolutions, has become a cosmetic showpiece for powerful players behind the scenes to cloak their choices in pseudo-democratic processes.
Last month a jirga was held in Kabul to decide between Qayum Karzai and Zalmai Rassoul. Despite more than 150 elders attending, many observers say the influence of President Karzai's hand behind the scenes decided his brother's withdrawal and support for Rassoul. Hazrat Wali Hotak, a politics lecturer at Kandahar University, said that people in this jirga were just invited by President Karzai to approve his decision.
“They did not have their own ideas and whatever they were told, they would have done it,” Hazrat Wali Hotak, another lecturer from Kandahar University, said of last month's Kabul jirga attendees.
Either way, Kandahar remains the kingpin region. Rassoul, Ghani, Sherzai and Naim have all held rallies in the province. All referred to Kandahar as the "heart" of Afghanistan.
"Kandahar has the status of the 'heart' in Afghanistan. If the heart is destabilized, the entire country will be destabilized. Therefore, my priority will be to make sure that Kandahar is secure and stable," said Rassoul at a ercent Kandahar rally. Most Kandaharis agree that restoring security in the insurgency-hit province will be key for any winning candidate to maintain support.
"The main problem Kandaharis have faced over the last decade is the lack of rule of law in their province. Over the last 13 years, not only has violence against women in Kandahar not decreased, but it has singnificanlty increased day-to-day," says Sahibzada Nematullah Nalaan, a civil society activist.
"Voting based on tribe has not addressd people's needs"
The survivor of an insurgent attack in Kandahar in 2012. Local residents say security is top of the voting agenda. (Photo: Nang Durrani)
"Likewise, local powerful elites and land mafia have continued grabbing government and public lands. If rule of law was in place, local powerful elites and land mafia would not have been able to do this. All the issues Kandaharis face today are due to a lack of rule of law. Nalaan says the last decade of government has engendered a new "maturity" in Kandahari voters.
"The experiences from the current government have proved that voting based on ethnicity, tribe, region, and language has not addressed people's basic needs. Now, this time, people have realized that they will only vote for a candidate that will put emphasis on implementation of rule of law in the country," Nalaan told Afghanistan Today.
Some analysts fear the anti-government insurgency will grow in the Taliban's heartland if a Kandahari isn't elected president. But Mohammad Yaar, a member of Wadaan Political Party, says people "want jobs, not more insurgency."
The IEC announced on March 29 that it would not be closing any of the 244 polling centres scheduled to open on April 5, in itself a good omen for security.
Despite the onslaught of campaigns, posters and rallies, some voters, like Mohammad Rahim, a resident of Kandahar City's 6th District, say April 5 will be a daily struggle like any other, with little special significance. "The most important thing for me is to pay my rent and to make sure that my kids sleep a night without starvation and hunger," says Rahim, who says he has no information about the election.
Others are aware of their national vote but see it as manipulatd by an international hand. "I will not participate in the upcoming elections, because the president has already been picked by foreigners," says Mohammadullah, a resident of Kabul's 9th District. "My one vote will not make a difference. Americans will pick a president from the candidate they like."