With six months until presidential elections and half the country undecided, it's officially campaign season in Afghanistan. Twenty-seven candidates have registered to be put on the ballot -- though many of these will likely be disqualified as their paperwork is reviewed. The first tracking poll, conducted by the Afghan news network TOLOnews and consulting company ATR, is already out -- and it shows that Afghans have a long way to go to make up their minds about who should succeed President Hamid Karzai.
The leading contender in the race is Abdullah Abdullah, the country's former foreign minister who ran against Karzai in 2009 but ultimately withdrew from the contest rather than force what would have been a divisive runoff election. He has the support of about 22 percent of the country, far more than any other candidate. "Abdullah's lead at this early juncture is not surprising, since he has more name recognition than others and has also spent the last few years organizing for the 2014 elections," Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, told FP, "whereas many other nominees entered the race at the last minute."
Statisticians (including Nate Silver, writing just earlier this week) are quick to warn about the predictive ability of early campaign polls, and this one's no different. Javid Ahmad, a program coordinator at the German Marshall Fund, points out that Abdullah's support is dwarfed by Afghanistan's large bloc of undecided voters. They make up half the country: 38 percent of poll respondents said they hadn't settled on a candidate and another 12 percent said they don't believe there are any good candidates in the field.
Abdullah will be competing with another 2009 candidate, former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani (sometimes referred to with his tribal affiliation, Ahmadzai), who was favored by approximately 14 percent of respondents. Like Abdullah, Ghani's support is concentrated in urban areas. Rounding out the top three is President Karzai's brother, Qayum, who polled under 10 points, but enjoyed more rural support than the leading candidates, especially in Afghanistan's southern and eastern provinces. Of the other 24 candidates, only five were selected by at least 0.5 percent of the poll's respondents.
The challenge, Samad and Ahmad noted, will be for the candidates to transcend ethnic and regional lines and build nationwide support. As in U.S. elections, some of that can come through the careful selection of running mates -- a consideration that already shows somewhat in the polling data, as Ghani's vice presidential candidate, Gen. Rashid Dostum, is earning him supporters in northern Afghanistan. But that won't be enough in April, says Samad, who explains, "Potential front-runners cannot rely solely on a single regional/ethnic constituency, and [will] have to cross the boundaries to remain viable."
That will take a combination of broad appeal, political finesse, and old-fashioned patronage -- the effects of which aren't apparent yet in the polling data. This sort of network-building is something Hamid Karzai has mastered over the past decade, and which Qayum was deeply involved in during his 2009 campaign. "With Karzai still in power and as a key powerbroker, he can easily employ his vast patronage network in support of whomever he will back," notes Ahmad. Karzai's support network will play a large role, but it's not the only route to an electoral victory. The Karzai network "kept the polity fractured and disorganized," says Samad, but Abdullah's approach has been to build a coalition that's "a mix of factional, regional, urban/rural, and small-scale alliances, which do not rely very much on traditional clan-style politics." That served him well in 2009.
There's also the issue of corruption. Reuters reports that votes are already being bartered and sold; the going rate is about $5.
The real prize -- and what to watch over the next six months -- is Afghanistan's undecided voters, and which candidate can build support not just in the north or the east, but across such a factionalized country.
You can read the full tracking poll below:
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images