Afghanistan will take one more baby step towards democracy and the international community one more towards its exit strategy as the country goes to the polls today to elect a new President. The 2009 presidential elections will take place in the midst of intensifying violence that has reached levels unprecedented since 2001 when the Taliban were removed. Unlike the presidential elections in 2004 and the 2005 parliamentary polls, which were viewed as the last pieces in the jigsaw puzzle which would complete the framework of the new Afghan State, these elections are taking place at a time of enormous political flux.
In 2004, the results appeared a fait accompli and the emphasis was on how the technical exercise involving logistics and security of the polling could be carried out with minimal disruption. This time however the mood of the country is considerably different with a real appetite for change. Three serious contenders threaten the political position of incumbent President Hamid Karzai who needs to secure 51 per cent of the votes in order to stave off a run-off involving a second round of polling. Current opinion polls suggest Karzai is well short of the mark and a second round of polling could consolidate the fragmented opposition vote.
The slow pace of economic recovery and delivery of services accompanied by credible evidence of wastage of resources and corruption has created strong resentment against the incumbent regime. Though the Taliban’s brutality and rigid intolerance continues to alienate Afghans, public support for the State-building exercise now comes with increasing conditions attached.
Afghans would like to see greater sovereignty restored to them, whether it is through control of the resources spent in their name in their country or through more checks on the operations of the international military forces which have taken increasingly high tolls of civilian lives. Antipathy towards the Taliban may not express itself through the ballot and a large section of voters may choose to stay at home given the surge in violence in the week ahead of the polls.
While there has been a great deal of focus on the likely winner, it is unlikely that either change or continuity through these elections will throw up any real answers. The current administrative and political system, which concentrates decision-making authority in the presidential office, marginalising both Parliament and the provinces, ensures that any man put in the position will have limited impact.
However what could be significantly different is the approach of the next incumbent to negotiations with the Taliban, which are being increasingly seen as a sine qua non for peace in Afghanistan by the western countries and a section of Afghan polity.
While the Taliban have threatened to disrupt the polls asking voters to stay away, it is not clear whether they will carry out large-scale violent attacks on the population, not least because of divisions within the Taliban’s own leadership on the long-term strategy and eventual peace talks. A section of the insurgent group may also prefer to see more sympathetic candidates being elected to the provincial councils, elections to which will also be held simultaneously.
The fear of polling day will not be the only factor keeping voters away. With some districts in the volatile south and south east of the country out of government control, no registration of voters has taken place. The incredibly high number of registered voters — which stands today at 17 million — is viewed with alarm by independent observers who see it as a sign of electoral malpractice and multiple voter cards. With no voter rolls or census and little substantive proof required of identity, much of the checks and balances on electoral malpractice may be dependent on polling staff whose ability to work independently is in question. Proxy voting, tampering of tally sheets, ballot stuffing were observed and documented in the past and are expected to be repeated again.
In past elections such malpractices have been by and large condoned by internationals engaged in the electoral process including those tasked with oversight. The prevailing opinion then was that political stability was more necessary than pursuing electoral malpractices that might undermine the credibility of the elections and lead to instability. Current indications are that this will also be the approach this time.
Troop contributing countries in Afghanistan hope to tout the Afghan elections as a sign of the progress made in Afghanistan towards a democratic polity, that will eventually allow them to withdraw troops from an increasingly unpopular military engagement. Fearful of possible unrest and violence that may rock the fragile stability holding the country together, the international community is likely to, by and large, endorse the elections as the lesser of two evils.
In Afghanistan, however, there is a discernible change in the perception of voters. Debates about a level playing field, the misuse of State resources and the past record of the incumbent government have been part of a lively debate. While internationals may be willing to compromise on the credibility of a democratic exercise in a country in conflict, Afghans are less willing to do so than before. In these elections, as in the entire State-building exercise, Afghans are being asked to choose ballots over bullets. The appeal to their democratic credentials must be matched by an equal commitment from the international community.