Commentary

Afghanis Vote with Hope and Uncertainty

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Citizens in Afghanistan went to the ballot box over the weekend to vote in their country’s presidential elections. With the incumbent Hamid Karzai constitutionally ineligible to run for another term, the final outcome is being closely monitored to gauge the country’s future direction. In particular, there is great interest in how Afghanistan’s next president will deal with the Taliban and the bilateral security agreement with the United States. But for many, the most important aspect of this election — regardless of the final outcome — is whether they are conducted in a fair and transparent manner.

Reflecting on this last point, the Afghanistan Times staff expressed great satisfaction at reports of a greater than expected voter turnout, especially among women voters: “The participation of over seven million Afghan voters in the historic elections is really extraordinary. It was mammoth turnout on April 05.... This election was a clear message to those who have been busy in the bloodshed of Afghan citizens. It was a biggest blow to them. The determination of young voters, sisters, mothers and elderly Afghans defeated the enemies of peace....The verve was worth watching, even in the far-flung parts of the country. It has been a massive victory for this nation over the elements of violence. Particularly the participation of women voters is something that needs to words for appreciation as ballots ran out fast at women polling centers. They made up more candidates than ever before. Their role in the society has been establishing gradually.”

Even though there were several candidates who were vying to become the country’s next president, only three of them, at least according to a Peninsula report, had a realistic chance of winning the elections: “There are eight candidates in the running to replace President Hamid Karzai who is barred by the constitution from contesting for a third straight term. Karzai has thrown his weight behind confidant and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, a nephew of former King Amanullah Khan who liberated the country from British yoke. The other two key contenders are Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat educated in the US who previously served at the World Bank, and Abdullah Abdullah, the leading opposition candidate. His father is Pashtun, but Abdullah Abdullah primarily represents the majority Tajik powers of the former Northern Alliance, the group which joined the Americans in toppling the Taliban government in 2001.”

The question naturally becomes what impact each of these candidates will have on the country. In an op-ed addressing these concerns, Outlook Afghanistan’s Muhammad Younas suggests that of the three Mr. Abudallah’s candidacy poses the greatest challenge to President Karzai’s policies: “So far three strong presidential candidates Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Zalmai Rasoul have emerged on the political arena to replace the incumbent president Hamid Karzai....Presumably, Pashtun hardliners must be pushing Karzai and his establishment hard to get him replaced by a Pashto speaking to prolong the Pashtun ruling legacy in Afghanistan. While non-Pashto speakers on other hand are trying their best to get elected by the simple majority....No doubt, Dr. Abdullah will bring changes to Afghanistan’s internal and external policies, if he gets elected as President of Afghanistan and Karzai’s pro-Taliban policy will come to an end. But will Karzai easily allow Abdullah to be the next president of Afghanistan?”

Equally important, at least as far as the Saudi Gazette editorial is concerned, is the future of the relationship with the United States, which during Karzai’s last years in office has deteriorated considerably: “A new president may give the U.S. a chance to repair relations with Kabul, which dropped to an all-time low with Karzai late last year when he refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow up to 10,000 troops to stay in Afghanistan when NATO combat missions end this year and when the U.S.-led coalition withdraws its 53,000 combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year....Whoever wins the race to succeed Karzai faces a testing time maintaining stability as Afghan forces take on the fight against the Taliban insurgency without the aid of NATO forces. Militants have stepped up attacks on foreigners in the Afghan capital, suggesting that they are shifting tactics to focus on civilian targets that aren't as heavily protected as military and government installations.”

Other commentators have suggested that the final success of the presidential elections will not be measured by who wins it, but by how. For example, the Daily Star’s Nadir Atash warns against marring the elections with corruption and fraud: “The Afghan people have taken democracy to heart and are actively engaged in the processes of the presidential elections....The legitimacy of the upcoming elections is crucial for Afghanistan’s path to stability. The Afghan people accepted a fraudulent presidential election last time for the sake of keeping the peace, but this time, that is not likely to happen. If these elections are marred by corruption and fraud, the stage will be set for deteriorating conditions. Terrorist and insurgent groups will take advantage of the situation in order to promote their agenda of taking control of the Afghan government yet again.”

Striking a more optimistic note writing for Outlook Afghanistan, Florance Ebrahimi believes that the elections have already exceeded expectations: “Although some say the vote won't be completely fair, but its certain it will be more credible than the 2009 poll, according to some election analysts....This election has created a hope for the masses that Afghanistan can also emerge as the healthy democracy. Hope for Afghanistan lies in the very fact that the practices of discourses and debates which were previously unheard off are becoming a common thing among citizens....Afghanistan’s long-term stability will be best achieved through a peaceful transfer of power to a new president with authority recognised broadly by Afghans. So it will right to say that these elections will be very crucial one for the future of 30 million Afghans.”

The National editorial makes a similar argument: “Regardless of the winners and losers who will emerge in the next few days, the vote is a validation of the peace and stability that has been brought to large parts of the country through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Nato-led security mission in Afghanistan. While ISAF has undoubtedly made mistakes along the way, the overall direction — of stability, moderate social programmes and economic progress — is one which the great majority of Afghans clearly support.”

But successful turn-out and the low levels of violence aside, for some, the hard work lies ahead and in particular, as the Khaleej Times points out, once the international troops leave Afghanistan: “The exit of Karzai, who has been in power since 2001, is likely to bring in its own dynamics on the power spectrum. Irrespective of the fact that he was at odds on a number of issues with Washington, he was considered indispensable by the West. He was not only instrumental in keeping the Coalition forces on ground for more than a decade but also letting the war-weary nation move towards Westernizations. The success story of Afghan economy and its evolving social strata — especially the rise of the Afghan army and police force — are a case in point as to how he made the best use of adverse circumstances for rebuilding the nation. But the million-dollar question on the eve of his exit is what will be the security situation when foreign troops too exit by the year-end?”


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