Afghanistan votes on its future
The coverage on the impending Afghan presidential elections has been filled with death and chaos — the tragic shooting at the Serena hotel where an international election monitor was killed, the shocking attack on the Afghan Election Commission’s headquarters, the killing of a provincial council candidate and the news that several international monitoring groups are pulling out.
These tragedies, however, shift the focus from the major news in Afghanistan this week: Election fever has gripped the nation. I hear from Afghans as well as many foreigners now working in Afghanistan that the excitement about the coming April 5 presidential election is palpable and encouraging.
If this election goes relatively smoothly, it will mark the first democratic handover of power in Afghan history. Potential large-scale fraud and violence will be substantial obstacles to overcome, but there are also some positive signs. Voters, observers and security personnel are gearing up with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation.
Why be optimistic?
Civil society has begun to blossom in many parts of Afghanistan after decades of repression and near-constant war. Bearded men pump their fists in the air during election rallies, others dance in dusty fields at political gatherings while volunteers serve lunch and tea. Millions of Afghans watch the candidates’ heated debates on television.
One key accelerator of civic participation has been the National Solidarity Program. To get funding for village projects under the program, tens of thousands of villages were required to elect local councils to decide how the money would be spent, and many women now serve as leaders of these councils. The flawed parliamentary and presidential elections in 2009 also showed many young Afghans what can happen if they are not engaged — and they seem grittily determined to flaunt Taliban violence and vote.
The Afghan media has been covering the campaigns non-stop, and candidates are actively campaigning and debating, rather than focusing on rigging votes, as they might have in the past.
The Afghan Election Commission has been surprisingly well-organized during this campaign, according to U.S. sources familiar with its work. They are ahead of schedule on key tasks such as organizing poll monitors, sending ballots to provinces and organizing security at polling stations. The international community is providing funding and local technical advice.
Though most media attention has focused on international observers, I know from personal experience as an election monitor in Pakistan how important national observers are as well. Two independent monitoring groups are deploying approximately 10,000 to 15,000 national observers at polling sites around the country and the various political factions are planning to marshal tens of thousands more. These constant eyes on voting by all parties involved make fraud more difficult.
International observers add an important second layer of neutrality to the election. Before the violence, there were plans for only 200 foreign monitors. Their partial withdrawal (roughly 80 reportedly remain) will not have a decisive impact.
Violence and Security: The Taliban have launched a concerted effort to disrupt the elections through violence and they have unleashed spectacular suicide attacks. Afghans have responded with defiance and are resolutely planning to vote. To protect voters, more than 380,000 army, police and international forces will be working to secure the elections, and more than 13,000 women will also help with security to boost gender participation.
A Motley Crew: The three frontrunners in the presidential election — Zalmai Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah, and Ashraf Ghani — are well-educated, Western-friendly, experienced administrators. Six of the other candidates or their running mates, however, are former warlords.
These warlords, men like Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Rashid Dostum, were ruthless killers in the 1990s civil war — but they also helped defeat the Taliban in 2001-2. They have all now pledged to support the national government, and declared their commitment to working with the West, and to signing the security agreement with Washington. They even talk enthusiastically about women’s rights. Yet how they will act in office or as power-brokers during a run-off election remains to be seen.
Fraud: No one should be under any illusion that this election will be entirely “free and fair.” In a desperately poor country, a few dollars or just a free meal can buy a vote. There are accounts of virtually all candidates distributing such “bakshish.”
We must accept that this election will be far from perfect. Afghans will likely tolerate small-scale fraud, but they may resort to violent protest if they believe a candidate without broad support has maneuvered into office.
The key to Afghanistan’s long-term stability will be a peaceful transfer of power to a new president selected by the electorate — and that president’s ability to work with the losers in the election to build a new Afghanistan. This is the moment for the international community to step back, be patient but engaged, and let Afghans decide their destiny.
PHOTO (TOP): Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah attend an election campaign in Herat province, April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
PHOTO (INSERT 1):Afghan presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul (C) and his two vice presidential candidates, Ahmad Zia Massoud (L) and Habiba Surabi, attend an election rally in Mazar-I-Shariff, northern Afghanistan, March 27, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood