On April 5, millions of Afghanistan citizens, both men and women, went to the polls to elect a new President, as well as provincial representatives. Although no election results have been announced, anecdotal reporting has indicated that voter turnout seems to be even higher than it was in previous elections. This will be the first democratic transition of power in Afghanistan’s history.
Turnout has been low in past elections, due to a combination of intimidated female voters, high levels of corruption at all levels of public service, and the threat of Taliban violence.
This time, however, the inability of current President Karzai to seek re-election in tandem with the withdraw of American troops, has created a larger sense that the people are actually participating in the future of their nation.
The current government under Karzai is well known to be corrupt, and as the deadline for American withdraw has drawn closer his apparent courtship of the remnants of the Taliban have concerned many people inside and outside of the country. His unwillingness to sign a joint U.S.-Afghanistan security agreement, which would keep foreign aid and troops in Afghanistan, has unnerved many people. There is a high level of skepticism about the ability of Afghanistan security forces to ward off potential Taliban advances without the support of international troops.
In stark contrast to Hamid Karzai’s recent recalcitrance, both of the most highly supported candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, have publicly supported the U.S.-Afghanistan security agreement.
Ashraf Ghani quit his job at the World Bank managing international development assistance, and began working pro-bono as the finance minister of Afghanistan. He is running on a campaign of good-government, bureaucratic reform, and economic growth, as well as creating a mutually beneficial relationship between Afghanistan and the International Community
Abdullah Abdullah, one of the other frontrunners, is running on a platform of moderate Islamism and government reform, as represented by the party he leads, the National Coalition of Afghanistan. Although many in the West will be concerned about ‘moderate’ Islamism after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi ran on a similar platform, Abdullah Abdullah has proven he is no fake moderate. When the Taliban took control of the country in 1996, he fought with the Northern Alliance to oppose the Taliban control.
There have been reports of many electoral issues including: polls opening late, shortages of ballot papers, encouragement/intimidation to support specific candidates, and mistreatment of election officials and election observers. Most observers of Afghan politics assumed that there would be a few issues with the voting, as Rome was not built in a day, but the election (and the popularity of more moderate, centrist candidates) is a huge step forward for Afghanistan.
The winner of this election seems likely to be a forward thinking moderate voice who could help move the nation past the painful memory of Taliban rule. Hopefully they will be able to take this mandate and move Afghanistan away from politics-as-usual.