Afghanistan faces a make or break polls
Afghanistan will go to polls April 5 to bring about the first democratic transition of power in the South Asian nation's history -- a transition accentuated by the fact that, after more than a decade, international forces will withdraw by the end of this year, the highly visible multi-sectoral international presence will reduce and taking the nation through this change will be a new president.
The Afghan-led internationally supported election process aims to organise a better election on democratic principles according to the country's constitution, adopted in 2004 and without the stain of extensive electoral fraud undermining the credibility and acceptability of the process.
The elections will also be the country's first democratic presidential race without Hamid Karzai. In 2014, Karzai true to the Afghan constitution, will step aside and, contrary to the supposition of sceptics, has thus far not attempted to manipulate an extension. He has, however, injected a fair bit of excitement and uncertainty by his refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US and raised the possibility of the so-called "zero option" of no US troops in Afghanistan post -2014.
Another uncertainty concerns the elusive peace deal with the Taliban. A war-weary Afghanistan today is reconciled to the idea that, to move forward, a negotiation with the Taliban needs to take place. But there are also fears about what this peace will come at the cost of the gains made in the rights of women and girls and in the advancement of civic and political rights.
Besides the election for a new the president of Afghanistan, concurrently taking place are elections for each of the Afghanistan's 34 provincial councils. The last provincial council elections, like this year, took place in 2009 alongside the presidential polls and are significant for many Afghans as the provincial councils are their primary link to governance.
The process for the presidential election began in November 2013, following the candidate nomination procedure, after which 11 candidates were officially registered. Since then, three candidates have withdrawn. Of the remaining candidates, three are considered to be front-runners: Abdullah Abdullah (former foreign minister and runner-up in 2009's presidential election); Ashraf Ghani (former finance minister); and Zalmai Rassoul (former foreign minister).
If none of the currently contesting eight candidates win 50 percent of the vote, then the top two candidates in terms of votes face each other in a run-off. According to the Constitution and electoral law, the run-off must take place two weeks after the certification of the results of the first round.
The campaign crowds have been massive, the interest in the debates intense and giving the voters perhaps for the first time, a choice and a responsibility. One of the success stories since 2001 has been the growth and development of civil society, women's groups and the participation of the youth.
Sixty-eight percent of the population is under 25 years old, and according to the country's Independent Election Commission, around 3.8 million new voters have registered to vote of which more than one-third are women. Besides the fact that the three presidential contenders have selected women to be their second vice presidential candidates, three hundred women candidates are in running for provincial council seats.
Several international organisations and groups are sending technical teams of 10-15 experts each to carry out long-term observation. Local Afghan observer organisations are planning to deploy around 15,000 observers. The Free and Fair Elections Foundation (FEFA) reports that it has registered 10,000; FEFA has observed every Afghan election since 2004.
Of course, there are caveats to all this. As the elections approach, the Taliban who wield de facto authority in roughly half the country have stepped up attacks and assassinations, pushing the levels of violence. Casting a vote is highly risky as the Taliban view the exercise as traitorous.
Election authorities have classified 3,140 of the 6,845 polling stations as unsafe; large swathes of the country, particularly in the south and east, might see almost no turnout. Even with the Taliban violence, recent polling by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan found that 75 percent of Afghans said they wanted to vote.
The first democratic transfer of power of an Afghan chief executive in history will also be a real test for Afghanistan's fledgling governmental institutions. A high voter turnout will limit the possibility of fraud, legitimise the elected government, signal unity and determination to Afghanistan's neighbours renew the country's relationship with the international community and more importantly reaffirm that the country is responding to international nation-building efforts.
Afghanistan's neighbours would be reassured of efforts to curb terror, narcotics and migration. However, if the elections fail, the consequences of the resulting political disorder could be extremely destabilising for the entire region, including India.
(Monish Gulati is a Senior Fellow at the Society for Policy Studies. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org>)
(Posted on 03-04-2014)