The Afghan elections are going to be a test of nerves and expectations. If they are held the way democracy dictates they should be, then it would be a victory for the US, for it will be proved that people are intransigent for a democratically elected government, thereby justifying almost a decade old tenuous occupation. Again, if the Taliban is able to mar the elections with some death-bearing inhuman strikes, which seem promisingly inevitable, it will be an attestation of their ghostly presence in the lives of the ordinary Afghans.
But above all, the elections are a test of the people of Afghanistan, and their belief - in peace, security and change.
According to a NATO report, around 15.6 million voters registered to vote in this election. But registered voters do not necessarily translate into actual voters braving the Taliban threat on election day. The recent spate of attacks is bound to affect the number of voters marginally, if not drastically.
Taliban has warned people in southern Afghanistan, where they are dominant, to stay away from the elections. At the same time the NATO and coalition troops would do their utmost to make the elections peaceful in the North. Thus, there are fears that this North-South divide might come into play much later (after the election) possibly witnessing a bloody culmination.
Hamid Karzai is the frontrunner in the elections for he has led the country since the interim government of 2001, after the fall of Taliban, and also did come to power in the 2004 presidential elections. The odds favour his return to presidential palace. But Karzai has been losing popular support steadily because of corruption charges as well as his apparent lack of control in running the country. Often he has been termed the puppet of the US.
But Karzai's selection of running mate, a former warlord Mohammed Qasim Fahim, did not go down well with the United Nations. Right before the elections, Karzai has allowed the return of Uzbek militia leader Abdul Rashid Dostum from exile in Turkey. With the presence of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai definitely dividing the Pashtun vote bank, Hamid Karzai probably looks to Uzbek warlord to corner Uzbek votes. But this has been another controversial decision that did not please the world as Dostum has been accused of human rights abuses.
Karzai's closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is a veteran resistance figure in the Soviet era, and also served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the interim government of Afghanistan. He promises to fight corruption, and in the same breath, the resurgent insurgent groups, albeit with the help of international troops. This clearly spells the retention of international troops in Afghanistan instead of a pullout like the imminent one in Iraq. He has also promised a parliamentary form of government if elected. Now it remains to be seen if a parliamentary government will make any significant difference keeping the current situation in Afghanistan in mind. Would a parliamentary form of government be able to deal with the Taliban threat better than the present presidential government is a question with no clear cut answers.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the third contender, was the Afghan finance minister between 2002 and 2004. Ghani's chances of winning the election are slim. His most lethal contribution though will be the fact that he's an ethnic Pashtun and can answer Karzai's concerns about the division of the Pashtun votes, the single largest ethnic group which comprises 40 per cent of the votebank.
Ramazan Bashardost, the fourth contender, has popular appeal amongst the poor because of his pro-poor statements. However, he isn't a threat by any stretch of imagination for either Karzai or Abdullah.
An International Republican Institute (IRI) survey in May 2009 gave Karzai 31 per cent, Abdullah 7 per cent, Bashardost 3 per cent and Ghani 3 per cent, in the build up to the elections. The second IRI survey in July saw Abdullah surge ahead to 26 per cent while Karzai moved to 44 per cent. Bashardost and Ghani moved to 10 per cent and 6 per cent respectively. The only fall in numbers was in the percentage of people who were undecided, which fell from 9 per cent to 3 per cent. Possibly the incessant violence in the country during the past three months has made Afghans more resolute in their bid to continue with democracy.
Most candidates promise similar ends but real change might be hard to come by. Taliban, peace and women's rights are on everyone's agenda but the agenda for the nation's future isn't clear. The number of girls in schools might have gone up since the days of the Taliban; still the reactionary remnants of the Talibanic days exert themselves in laws like a recently passed decree which allows men to deny food and sustenance to their wives in case they refuse their husband's sexual demands. The law also requires women to get permission from their husbands to work.
The fairness of the electoral process will also be in question. The largest local monitoring group, Afghan Free and Fair Elections Foundation, will not be observing 30 per cent of the polling booths due to security concerns. There have also been media reports of the registration rolls having "phantom voters". Added to this, a BBC exposé has shown how voter cards can be bought in bulk, and how candidates have been offering thousands of dollars in bribes for votes. Thus claims of fair elections can be laid to rest. It needs to be seen just how fair the electoral process will be.
The democratic process in the 21st century Afghanistan will culminate on September 17 and it remains to be seen whether the results would be on expected lines or the NATO led Karzai govt will come in for a rude shock. But the fact that people turned out to vote under the threat of violence will be a testimony that Afghans are willing to risk their lives for a peaceful tomorrow.