In a few days, Afghanistan will experience its first democratic transfer of power. Yet despite the historic nature of the 2014 presidential election, scheduled for April 5, voting day was the furthest thing from most Afghans' minds in late 2013. Though the Afghan parliament had passed several electoral laws in the fall of 2012 and current President Hamid Karzai had given numerous public assurances that he had no intention of delaying the vote or attempting to hold on to power, Afghans were, at worst, disbelieving and, at best, non-committal about the elections.
Though 11 presidential candidates had been confirmed by December 2013 (there are now eight), the election remained on the backburner for policy makers and media pundits, both of which were focused on the wrangling between Karzai and President Obama over a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would pave the way for a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan once the NATO combat mission ended in December 2014.
But by early February, two crucial things had changed. First, it had become so clear that Karzai would not sign the BSA that the issue receded into the background; and second, the presidential campaign had begun. The candidates were suddenly everywhere and the population was energized by televised debates and campaign rallies across the country. The election had gone from theory to fact and the Afghan public -- even in some of the most insecure provinces such as Khost, Paktia, Kandahar, Helmand, Kunar, Nangarhar and Kunduz -- was on the streets, in the rally halls, on the airwaves, and online talking not about if the elections would occur, but debating the merits of the various tickets and how to best use their vote.
Over the past two months, I have been travelling to various provinces and witnessed the public's enthusiasm first hand -- a particularly heartening experience given the continued security threats in places such as Kunar, Paktia, Nagarhar, and Herat. After a barrage of national debates and an Afghan media that provided greater access to election information than ever before, many of the top candidates have defied expectations by attracting large gatherings at rallies in provincial capitals and quickly assembling provincial campaign teams composed of influential community leaders. I witnessed first-hand the opening of provincial offices of several candidates that attracted thousands of people even without the presence of the candidates.
These community leaders have made a calculated decision that active participation in the political process is in their best interest because they have a chance to elect a new leader who can have a better relationship with the international community for long term support. This decision is partly driven by the understanding that there is no incumbent -- that Karzai cannot stand for a third term and cannot, or will not, attempt to hold on to the presidency by other means.
Despite all this optimism and the potential for higher than expected turnout, the candidates and analysts are still worried about the prospect of massive fraud and election day violence similar to the 2009 elections. The threats might be external, such as that created by Taliban, or will be internal, like widespread fraud.
In 2009, as the incumbent, Karzai had the government machine firmly on his side -- a well-known fact that raised the prospect of massive government-sponsored fraud, curbing voter enthusiasm and turnout. In that election, many alleged that the Independent Election Commission (IEC) did not act in a fully independent manner, and while the Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC) invalidated many votes from over 210 polling stations around the country, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's challenger, withdrew from the run off saying the fraud was too widespread and too organized in favor of Karzai for a fair result.
The circumstances are much different today. There is a greater understanding amongst the public about the importance of this election in charting a new course for the country, and more debate about choosing candidates based on their policies and programs for changing the status quo. This should in turn increase turnout and act as a check on fraud. Ahmad Yousuf Nooristani, IEC Chairman, told me on March 17 that they expect 60 to 70 percent turnout on Election Day. The government machine that was solidly in Karzai's camp in 2009 is currently divided between four or five of the top candidates. If fraud does occur, it may not be on the same scale as past elections and may not heavily favor any one candidate, a fact which may lead to a second-round vote, but will increase the confidence of the public in the process.
Finally, the IEC appears to be more independent and technically prepared to conduct a credible election, since they realize the stakes are incredibly high and their impartiality is particularly important in avoiding post-election disputes that could plunge the country into chaos. Even though the IEC's role is very important, the election is nonetheless a political process. In order to have a clean and credible election, the presidential candidates should take responsibility, play by the rules, and accept the results.
Shahmahmood Miakhel is the Country Director of Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is a former Afghan Deputy Minister of Interior.
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