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.