The political processes taking place in Afghanistan as the country prepares for the upcoming September presidential elections are gaining momentum. As the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban (a terrorist organization outlawed in Russia) fade from the headlines, the news about the forthcoming plebiscite is increasingly filling the media.

Firstly, we should note that the elections were originally slated for April 2019, however, after the composition of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) changed and Hawa Alam Nuristani was appointed as the new chief, IEC reported that additional $192 million would be required to hold the elections (general election will now coincide with the presidential one). The vote has already been rescheduled twice: initially, the ballot was postponed to July 20, and later the date was set for September 28.

The Afghan Independent Election Commission said in a statement that the additional time was needed to increase transparency and improve the candidates’ registration process.

We should also stress that postponement had to do with an attempt to resolve problems made apparent during the parliamentary elections in the country. An example of such faults is a sociological survey conducted in 2000, according to which an absolute majority of Afghans did not even know the name of the president they elected (Hamid Karzai).

Today, more than a dozen candidates are vying for the office of President of Afghanistan. However, five frontrunners should be singled out: incumbent President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah, former National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar, former Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh and the leader and founder of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan (Hezb-e-Islami), Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

They all have widespread popular support and influence. In this regard, it is safe to say even now that the struggle is expected to be intensive and fierce. The list of candidates may soon increase.

At present, there is no telling what the chances of any of the candidates are – there are six months left before the election, however, acting President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah will certainly have strong rivals capable of ruining the game and throwing a curve. Although, it is clear that many candidates go into the election not to actually win, but to solve their political and financial problems.

It is worth adding that Ashraf Ghani has rather low ratings, and political elites give him lukewarm support. Nevertheless, there are three factors that can potentially win him a victory.

Firstly, he is supported by the main sponsor of the political regime in Afghanistan – the United States. Secondly, the rest of the country’s political forces are fragmented and don’t have a clear and consistent line and platform. Thirdly, it was Ghani who initiated the negotiation process with the Taliban (a terrorist organization outlawed in Russia).

This factor, though, may not only play into the hands of the incumbent president, but also trip him up: there are many opponents of such dialogue in the Afghan society. One of the weaknesses of the president seeking re-election is that he is overly emotional for an intellectual and a scientist.

Giving a brief character assessment of the president of Afghanistan, we find it important to note not only his complete and unfailing loyalty to the United States, but also the fact that neither the president, nor his closest circle, his fellow tribesmen (Ghani belongs to the eastern Pashtun tribe from the Ghilzai tribal confederacy) have an affection towards Russia and its leadership in particular.

In addition to the apparent political heavyweights, such as the incumbent president and the prime minister, Hekmatyar, Atmar and Saleh should not be overlooked.

Hekmatyar is the founder and leader of a very large (more than 10,000 members throughout the country) Islamic Party of Afghanistan (Hezb-e-Islami), which ideology is similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood (considered a terrorist organization in Russia). He is a warlord who fought against the Soviet Union and has extensive connections in the Islamic world. However, in all fairness, it seems that Hekmatyar’s popularity is no longer at its peak, and his domestic influence and foreign support declined greatly.

As far as the Russian interests are concerned, the election win of the former head of the National Security Council, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, would be preferable. The Western media often calls him the shadow decision-maker behind the contemporary politics of Kabul.

An Afghan security boss and an ethnic Pashtun, who, just like the president, belongs to a powerful tribal confederacy, he was a central figure behind a security agreement with the United States and the negotiation process with the Taliban.

It stands to mention that Atmar speaks Russian and visits Moscow occasionally. He is known to have established close contact with Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. In 2016, the Afghan politician said that he often visits Moscow in order to seek help in combating the Islamic State (outlawed in the Russian Federation).

Another powerful Afghan politician – Yunus Qanuni – a Tajik, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, a Hazara, are Atmar’s running mates. For 15 years, Qanuni has been considered one of the most powerful people of Afghanistan, after the war on the side of the Taliban he was a member of parliament under the Transitional Administration, and later he became the speaker of the lower house. 

Mohaqiq is a veteran in Afghan politics. In 1980s, he served with the mujahideen insurgent forces. After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, Mohaqiq was appointed as the leader of the Hazara Hezb-e Wahdat party.

In a nutshell, Atmar has put together probably one of the strongest teams to date. He believes that his country should pursue a balanced political course. Atmar has working contacts with Iran, India, Russia and other powers. Thus, he stands a chance to vie for for the presidency.

However, as we have already noted earlier, the United States is currently the main sponsor of the political regime in Afghanistan. In this regard, today it seems unlikely the US will drop the support for its candidate – acting President Ashraf Ghani.