On 5 April, Afghans went to the polls in unprecedented numbers to choose provincial representatives and their next president. The state of suspense as the votes are being gathered and counted is palpable. Anxiety is high that things could go badly wrong. But already, something positive has happened.
For years, many Afghan and foreign experts predicted that Hamid Karzai, the outgoing president, would find a pretext for delaying the 2014 presidential and provincial elections. He has not.
Others foresaw the elections resulting in a resurgence of ethnic tensions. That has not happened either. The candidates pointedly have all chosen running mates from different ethnic groups. So far, they have behaved far more responsibly than many anticipated, some bowing out gracefully, others promising to be ‘good losers’. It helps that they all know each other. None has threatened to ‘head for the hills’.
Few anticipated a year ago just how vigorous - and engaging - the campaigns would be, whether by Afghan or regional standards. The country’s burgeoning social media has been abuzz. Local media and civil society have challenged presidential aspirants to set out their positions on just about everything – including women’s rights, corruption, the economy, cricket, reconciliation with the Taliban, and their willingness to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States.
Scenarios about insecurity preventing vast numbers of people from voting, despite the hundreds of attacks in the run up to election day, have not been realized, thanks to earlier planning than in previous elections by electoral authorities and the Afghan National Security Forces. It is the reality of insecurity, both Taliban attacks on civilians and corruption and abuse of authority by the powerful, that propelled people to vote.
Accusations of foreign meddling in the elections have been noticeably mute; the neighbours just want a clear outcome. The US, UN and international community, chastised by accusations of interference in the 2009 elections, have played their hands carefully, avoiding candidate favouritism and insisting that their priority objective is the legitimacy of the process.
The voters themselves have been in a defiant mood. After extensive media coverage of high profile Taliban attacks, including on journalists, few expected such a high turnout. While the full details have yet to emerge, and there will be significant regional variations, voters refused to be intimidated by the Taliban.
Research commissioned by Chatham House and others indicates that many voters, particularly in the country’s rapidly expanding urban areas, saw their ballots as a means to express hope in a peaceful transfer of power, a secure rather than violent and corrupt future, almost regardless of which individual ends up in the presidential palace.
Exit and other polls indicate that two candidates will attract most votes: Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister, and Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and runner-up to Hamid Karzai in 2009. Both are established figures with long political, international and governmental experience.
But despite these developments, things could go seriously awry. If no presidential candidate has secured a decisive first round victory when the preliminary results are announced, scheduled for 24 April, then the country will embark upon an unprecedented second round, probably by early June. The capacity of electoral and security institutions will again be severely stretched and tested, and the opportunities for targeted Taliban violence will increase.
If there is no clear-cut winner, particularly if one candidate gets a small majority, accusations of fraud and irregularity could trigger major disputes and protests. The capacity and credibility of the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) will be under the spotlight, as will the country’s rickety and corrupt judicial system. The pressure will be enormous as the stakes are so high, given the president’s role at the fountainhead of a massive patronage system.
A prolonged period of uncertainty could ensue, dragging on for months, as complaints are reviewed, adjudicated and the IECC announces verdicts. If candidates or their supporters resort to populist rabble rousing, disputes could indeed take on an ugly ethnic dimension, particularly in urban areas.
A drawn-out process is likely to extend President Karzai’s political shelf life. It will further dent regional and international confidence in the country’s future, with signature of the BSA on hold, even though the leading candidates are committed to signing it. Without that, already eroding Western commitment to subsidizing the country’s otherwise unsustainable national budget may fray rapidly, with dire consequences for the economy, jobs and political stability.
A potential milestone
But there is nothing inevitable about this scenario. It is not impossible that a clear-cut first round winner will emerge. Should there be contested results and a period of uncertainty, responsible behaviour by the two leading candidates will make all the difference and reduce the chances of violence. Ashraf Ghani’s insistence that he will not do a deal to obviate a second round only underscores the attraction of exactly that taking place.
President Karzai’s own role will also be critical. His legacy among Afghans as overseeing the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history is at stake. His status with the next president and in the international community will be shaped by the role he plays in ensuring the legitimacy of the outcome.
The coming months are full of potential peril and uncertainty. There will be more bloody attacks, possibly egregious fraud and legal irregularities. How they are handled may be more important than their occurrence.
Faith in Afghans’ ability to resolve their own political problems has been low. The stage is now set, should the principal actors choose to play their parts, for a moment of great political maturity and transformation.
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