Afghans head to the polls today to elect a new president. If all goes well, the election will mark the first democratic transition of government in the country’s history. Among many voters, there is a sense of cautious optimism for the simple reason that whoever is elected will not be current President Hamid Karzai. A new president holds out the possibility of a fresh start and voters have tuned into debates and flocked to campaign rallies to hear what candidates have to say on Afghanistan’s big issues: corruption, governance, peace talks with the Taliban, women’s rights, the economy and relations with the West. The election of a new president also holds out the prospect of a much-needed “reset” in U.S.-Afghan relations, which have sorely deteriorated in recent years.
While hopes are high that the election will deliver a legitimate outcome, whole swaths of the country are under Taliban control, particularly in the south and east, and they are unlikely to see much, if any voter turnout. The Taliban have designated voting a traitorous act and violence has marred the campaign from the beginning. After a number of brazen Taliban attacks in Kabul in recent weeks, many international election observers have left Afghanistan. The potential for a repeat of the ballot stuffing that undermined the 2009 election is great, although as some have noted, there is probably no way to conduct the election without a certain level of wholesale vote-buying. Areas under Taliban control, which are predominantly Pashtun, would otherwise have no representation and be even more likely to reject the results.
A real concern is that the election will end in dispute. With no clear front-runner today, it is unlikely that any candidate will clear the required threshold of 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off election. A repeat of 2009, when runner-up Abdullah Abdullah refused to participate in a run-off because he said the process was corrupt, would be politically disastrous. Vote-rigging this time around is inevitable, but the question is whether it will be so pervasive as to again undermine the legitimacy of the process.
From the U.S. perspective, the priority is seeing a “clean-enough” election that delivers a result Afghans accept. While the three leading candidates are each very different in style, it is not so clear how they would differ in substance if elected. The technocratic background of front-runner Ashraf Ghani, a former academic with a Ph.D. from Columbia University who worked at the World Bank, seems best suited to take on the governance and corruption challenges facing the country – issues that Ghani has long championed. But Ghani, a Pashtun, can also play political hardball. His choice of Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum as his running mate – a man he lambasted in the past as a warlord with blood on his hands – was a move of pure political cynicism. As Ghani’s critics point out, the technocrat didn’t rise in the polls from 3 percent of the vote to being a frontrunner just on the strength of his charisma.
Abdullah Abdullah, the urbane former foreign minister who is half Tajik and half Pashtun, also has two notorious warlords as running mates (they each have two running mates). The third contender, Zalmay Rassoul, is widely seen as the “establishment” candidate given his close ties to Karzai. Rassoul is the only one of the three candidates without a warlord on his ticket. In fact, his running mate is a woman - Habiba Sarabi, a hematologist and the respected former governor of the predominantly Hazara province of Bamiyan. Sarabi has campaigned courageously across the country with Rassoul, even in conservative areas. All three candidates have vowed to support women’s rights and have explicitly sought to woo women voters during their campaign.
Each of the three leading candidates has also
stated his intention to sign the controversial Status of Forces Agreement with
the U.S. that Karzai has refused to sign. Karzai’s intransigence has stymied
planning for an ongoing U.S. security presence in Afghanistan – to the dismay
of many Afghans. Whichever candidate is elected will inherit an uneasy
relationship with the U.S., but it won’t be burdened with the personal
animosity that exists today between Karzai and his American counterparts. The
drawdown of U.S. troops creates an opportunity to put the bilateral
relationship on a healthier footing – one where Washington is more respectful
of Afghan sovereignty, but also where Kabul has no choice but to take greater
responsibility for governance and security. A smooth transition of power will go a long
way to shoring up confidence in the government and its ability to tackle the
country’s problems in the face of an ongoing insurgency.