Millions of brave Afghans defied the Taliban to cast their ballots on 20 August in the country's second national elections since Taliban rule. At least 26 people were killed in election-related violence. Estimated 40 to 50 percent of the country's 15 million registered voters cast ballots ' far lower than the 70 percent who voted in the presidential election in 2004. 6,202 polling centers ' 95 percent of those planned were opened.
The elections once again proved that despite the threats by the Taliban the democratic urge of the Afghan remains strong. With Taliban declaring its intent of disruption, protecting the electorate was difficult as 76 per cent of the population lives in remote and electorally critical areas. As per the Afghan interior ministry map, 10 of Afghanistan's 364 districts are colored black or under Taliban control and 156 are considered high risk areas. The Taliban struck at 73 places in Afghanistan in 15 provinces, demonstrating their reach, but the Elections went on. The Election Day attacks killed eight Afghan soldiers, nine police and nine civilians.
The main contestants in the Presidential elections were well known figures in Afghan politics. While campaigning was intense, the results were said to be determined by support of local power brokers who delivered large blocks of votes to the candidates who wooed them. President Karzai the incumbent is thus accused of having struck deals with disreputable tribal leaders, including Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mohammed Qassim Fahim, Jan Mohammad and Gul Agha Sherzai for winning over their voting blocks.
Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister, a candidate of the National Front and is part Pashtun and part Tajik. The Front is obliged to the Tajiks and other non-Pashtuns of the Northern Alliance. Ramazan Bashardost, a Hazara has no political affiliation. The candidate coming in fourth as per opinion polls is Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun has an anthropology doctorate from Columbia University is a technocrat and a former World Bank official, who was Karzai's finance minister between 2002 and 2004.
The United States of America, State Department release on 17 August claimed that it did not support or oppose any particular candidate. Most significantly it stated, ' We call on candidates and their supporters to behave responsibly before and after the elections. Finally, we look forward to working with whomever the Afghan people select as their leaders for the next five years'.
There was a high turnout in 70% of the provinces with reportedly good participation in rest 30% of the country with a difficult insurgency. "We are satisfied with the participation of our people in the elections", the country's Interior Minister, Hanif Atmar, said at a press conference. UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-moon congratulated the Afghan people in advance thereby indicating which way the election credibility will be in the days ahead. NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has declared Afghanistan elections "a security success". US President Mr. Obama praised Afghans for coming out to vote thus, "I was struck by [voters'] courage in the face of intimidation and their dignity in the face of disorder," Mr. Obama said. "There is a clear contrast between those who seek to control their future at the ballot box and those who kill to prevent that from happening."
The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) said it had received 225 allegations of irregularities in the presidential and provincial council polls. ECC Chairman Grant Kippen, addressing a news conference in Kabul, said the complaints lodged with them included tampering with ballot boxes, voter intimidation, multiple and proxy voting, as well as ballot-box stuffing. Most of the complaints, some of which could affect the outcome of the historic vote, were received from Kandahar, Ghazni, Maidan Wardak and Kunduz provinces.
Initial outcome has shown two trends, Mr. Karzai is leading so far with a huge margin of votes at 71 percent and there are also allegations of major fraud and rigging. In case this trend continues and Mr. Karzai wins in the first round, the Abdullah camp his closest rival may even plan Iran style protest rallies in the country, though the level of political sophistication seen in Tehran is lacking in Kabul and democratic protests are unlikely to be as effective.
What is clear is that Mr. Karzai would have won with the support of some tribal leaders whose credentials are dubious and he would be hostage to them in the future. Secondly these leaders were formerly associated mostly with the Northern Alliance, hence Pashtun support to his re-election will be limited and Taliban may oppose him strongly.
On the other hand Mr. Karzai has shown his capacity to manage and manipulate the politics in Afghanistan mainly based on tribal loyalties and leadership control. This factor may provide him the necessary impetus to win over some of the Taliban as well.
Thus with incumbent President Karzai set to return to power in Kabul, it is time for many who did not want him to succeed press the reset button and that includes the United States. Elections are being hailed by all world leaders as a success including the UN Secretary General and the Indian Minister of External Affairs, given that India is generally not inclined to make any remarks on the internal affairs of a country.
The main problems appear to be two fold, a lower turnout would reduce the legitimacy of the elections particularly if it is in the south, then there is a degree of excision of the majority Pashtun community and therefore their acceptance of the results is also suspect. On the other hand there is a fear that the candidates particularly the losing one may create an Iran like situation which would be inherently destabilizing for Kabul.
'The possibility of a Kenya or a Zimbabwe or an Iran looms large,' warned Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, 'We know what the costs of those types of outcomes are,' Ghani told POLITICO in a telephone interview from Kabul. 'And those scenarios need to be discussed and avoided, because it is still at a moment where ' with the right policies and approach and focus ' we can avoid that kind of outcome.'
The lower turnout could also be attributed to public apathy with the Afghan leadership mired in years of corruption and tribal power politics which has seen the country slip into anarchy over the years despite a relatively stable Presidency being voted in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote
U.S. officials are also now strategizing about how to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to overhaul his government, which was viewed as corrupt and ineffectual, if he wins a second term. They are expected to push for stronger local and provincial councils as a counterweight to Kabul. A similar strategy was used successfully in Iraq, where some provincial governments were given authority and resources to address needs of villagers who felt neglected.
In the larger context though the election is not just a contest for Afghanistan's powerful Presidency but one between the Taliban and the Coalition.