Sunday was the final day in a three-week registration period for Afghan presidential hopefuls to file their candidacies with Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission. When the commission closed yesterday evening, having stayed open late to accommodate a last-minute flood of registrants, 27 candidates had officially entered the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai in what will be the country’s first democratic transfer of power, with elections scheduled for April 5, 2014.
The campaign will take place as most international troops prepare to depart the country by the end of 2014, when the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force officially expires. Meanwhile, as the registration process came to a close last week, U.S. and Afghan negotiators had come no closer to breaking their long-standing impasse over a proposed bilateral security agreement to govern any continuing U.S. presence in the country, raising the specter of a full withdrawal.
The historical significance and high stakes of the presidential contest notwithstanding, there has been little in the way of policy debate among the candidates so far. “The discussion is about names, not programs,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director and co-founder of the independent research organization Afghanistan Analysts Network, in an email interview. Apart from some background political “themes”—among them controversy over negotiating with the Taliban—he said, “I personally do not see any more concrete political programs, apart from the usual slogans” about peace and national unity.