The Afghans go to polls on April 5 to elect a new president and create history — this will be the first ever peaceful and democratic handover of power in the country. The insurgent Taliban, refusing to accept the legitimacy of the current political set-up or the constitution, have vowed to derail the process. They have stepped up suicide attacks in Kabul and other provinces to challenge the government and to intimidate voters. These daily attacks are resulting in casualties and yet I have witnessed, in the last month, a palpable sense and show of defiance among voters, candidates and the administration.
The evidence of this defiance can be seen at election rallies of the three main contenders — Zalmai Rassoul, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah. Tens of thousands of people have turned up to be part of the democratic process that this country embraced after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. These open public meetings, exposed to suicide attacks by the Taliban, have taken place not only in the relatively secure northern provinces but in the troubled provinces of Kandahar, Helmand or Ghazni in the south too.
I was witness to the festive mood during Afghanistan’s first presidential election in 2004. There was song and dance on the streets and people came out in their best attires. Today the feel of festivity is gone and it has been replaced with concerns in the face of almost daily attacks, but yet one senses that the Afghans are ready to celebrate democracy.
Leaders of one-time Mujahideen groups, responsible for starting the civil war in 1992 after the collapse of the communist government of Mohammad Najibullah, are also soliciting votes. This four-year-long civil war brought anarchy, devastated the country, killed tens of thousands of people and ushered in the Taliban, who then promised justice and stability. These leaders are taking part in public debates; they are talking about the need for free and fair polling; and they are not threatening to take up arms if they lose in the elections.
The development of a vibrant and an independent media is possibly one of the most important success stories in the effort of rebuilding a new Afghanistan. A young group of journalists is taking the message of dividends of peace, the need for dialogue and the essence of democracy to Afghan homes through radio and television. Presidential candidates have appeared in televised debates in front of audiences who have asked them tough questions.
In the last 12 years, I have seen how the country has practically been rebuilt from rubble. The major cities and towns now have an acceptable level of infrastructure and civic amenities. A few million girls have joined schools. Kabul University buzzes with nearly 50,000 students — both boys and girls. There are more female students in Herat University than male. When I visited a primary school in the central province of Parwan a few months ago, a 10-year-old girl told me that her dream was to be a policewoman when she grew up. Such dreams have taken root in the country once run by the Taliban and forsaken by the world.
My Afghan friends in the local media, who have a presence in all 34 provinces, tell me that they are getting message from citizens that they will vote in spite of threats from the Taliban.
This sea change in the psyche has taken place in the ‘new’ Afghan society. People have crossed the line of fear — the only tool the Taliban have. Once they have crossed that line, as the evidence tells us, the Taliban have lost. Some people may stay away from voting but the majority will come out defying the terror of the Taliban.
Nazes Afroz is former executive editor for South and Central Asia of the BBC World Service
The views expressed by the author are personal