Saturday’s presidential vote in Afghanistan marks the country's third attempt at a legitimate election, and the beginning of its first democratic transfer of power. And despite widespread anxiety, opinion polls find a rise in optimism — fueled, some say, by increased confidence in the Afghan Security Forces and by the promise that, after 12 years, the country will be led by someone other than Hamid Karzai.
According to an Al Jazeera poll — conducted amid a string of Taliban attacks on high-profile targets in the heart of Kabul — 85 percent of respondents said Afghanistan was “ready” for the elections, and nearly 70 percent said the country would improve over the next five years under a new president. This optimism comes despite fears over the potential for civil conflict erupting from a disputed result, and preparations for departure by year's end of the NATO-led forces that have propped up the Karzai government over more than a decade.
Afghan opinion about the future may be buoyed by a handful of tangible indicators such as the trebling of GDP, the eightfold increase in school enrollment and improved access to health care that have resulted more from the cascade of Western aid since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, which ousted the Taliban, than from competent policymaking in Kabul. And while violence remains a part of everyday life in parts of the country, the Afghan Army is said by officials to have largely its ground against a resilient Taliban insurgency since taking over more security responsibility from NATO forces.
But Afghans have fallen prey to false hopes in the past, warn some experts. After the highly compromised 2009 election, which saw the country’s Independent Election Commission nullify nearly 1 million votes for Karzai in a poll in which only one third of registered voters participated, “there was a collective nervous breakdown,” said Sara Chayes, an Afghanistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “However rigged the election was expected to be, there was an illogical enthusiasm then.”
Part of the reason some Afghans report a sense of renewed hope is that standards for an acceptable election are quite low. The United Nations has pumped $126 million into this year’s ballot, which will feature ramped up anti-fraud measures. Still, no one expects the elections to be “free and fair”— not by Western standards, anyway.
“Whether it’s going to be 100 percent perfect, I’m sure it’s not going to be,” said Eklil Hakimi, the Karzai government's Ambassador to the U.S. “But under the current circumstances, with the arrangements we have provided within our capability, I’m sure we will have an election where the outcome will be legitimate and accepted by the Afghan people.” He said the elections would be a “positive sign to our international allies that Afghanistan is fully committed to democracy.”
Early polling, however unreliable, has indicated a tight race between Abdullah Abdullah — the part-Tajik former foreign minister and who ran Karzai a close second in the disputed 2009 election — and two candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul, from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. Even though Karzai, who is barred from running again, has a horse in this race — Rassoul is believed to have his backing — more than half the votes are expected to go to other candidates, which would be an important step for a nascent central state whose image has long been synonymous with the unpopular, outgoing president.
"This is the first time that nobody knows who will be president. This time, there are front runners and there is genuine competition," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, founder and chairman of the Kabul-based Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, a civil society organization promoting democracy.
Each of the frontrunners has also pledged to sign a security deal (BSA) that would keep a U.S. peacekeeping force in the country past the current end-of-year deadline, a deal that has the overwhelming support of Afghans nervous that, despite recent improvements, the national security forces are not capable of prevailing over the Taliban.
Karzai, whose relations with the U.S. have soured of late, has refused to sign it — purportedly as he pursues peace talks with the Taliban. Amb. Hakimi said he was confident the BSA would be signed by whoever won on Saturday.
Even so, the talk in Afghan political circles is much less about which of these men will take the reins in Kabul and more about whether the result will be accepted. Achievements such as high voter turnout, female participation, and fewer stolen ballot boxes than in 2009 will fade into the background if the result is not widely accepted in a country whose politics retains a strong ethnic component, and in which local power often rests with warlords.
“There’s a certain tendency in the U.S. to get election triumphalism — people showing off purple fingertips, statements from U.S. officials that politics have broken out in war-torn parts of the world,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and an Afghanistan expert. “Part of that is assuming that if there’s a free and fair election, then of course the loser will accept the result because the people have spoken. That’s not necessarily what happens in parts of the world that don’t have a tradition of peaceful changes of power.”
The potential for post-election turmoil is amplified by a Taliban insurgency whose goal is dismantling the current political and security order. The Taliban threat has already succeeded in scaring away some foreign election observers. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the organizations that was working to prepare Afghans for the election, told Al Jazeera in an email it had closed its office in Kabul and withdrawn international staff after one of its employees was killed in a March 20 attack on the five-star Serena Hotel. Other election monitoring organizations have reportedly done the same.
“The attacks will continue and we will keep on killing foreigners,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid threatened after an attack on the guesthouse of U.S.-based NGO Roots of Peace last week.
Even with groups like NDI active in voter registration, monitoring polling stations and training poll workers, there was never a chance elections would meet international criteria for being free and fair. But their departure could present another bump in the road if the losing candidate — or candidates — cites their absence as grounds for rejecting the result of the vote, said Biddle. “If the loser accepts the outcome because of some pre-election negotiation and they’re satisfied with what they get, that’s not so bad. What would be bad is if they lose, mobilize their supporters to take to the streets, and point to the lack of objective monitors to support a claim that the election was stolen.”
Along that continuum of possible post-election drama, there are a number of outcomes that could “polarize and paralyze Afghan politics,” Biddle added. In the worst-case scenario, the loser could go so far as to spur violence against the government — whether deliberately or not. Sectarian clashes would almost certainly follow, and the state's fragile legitimacy would deteriorate even further.
And if a new government takes power on the basis of a contested election marred by a violent aftermath, it's unlikely to be able to count on nearly the same level of security and financial support of the international backers that kept the Karzai order in place.