Uncertainty over the April 5th Afghan presidential elections and the future of the country abounded as Afghans flocked to the polls with a sense of pride and hope. Concern from Afghans and the international community alike has stemmed from several sources.
Given that outgoing president Hamid Karzai was chosen by Afghan leaders to lead the country following the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and has remained in power ever since (2004 and 2009 polls notwithstanding), this election marks the first democratic transfer of power to a new leader in the nation’s troubled history.
And then there is the unsteady security situation:
NATO troops are scheduled to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, unless the new president chooses to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) keeping thousands of troops in country to continue training national security forces. Possibly in an attempt to foster an independent image apart from the United States or to cater to insurgent interests (a self-preservation move), Karzai has refused to sign the BSA. All eight of the presidential candidates, however, have promised to do so: further training would help combat the efforts of the Taliban, which has posed the greatest threat to both the elections and the security of the country in general.
The Taliban has condemned the elections as the work of foreign powers, and has in recent weeks increased its attacks on even the most secure areas of Kabul. Support for the Taliban continues despite its hand in civilian casualties; nonprofit international development organization The Asia Foundation determined in a poll last year that approximately a third of Afghans, especially Pashtuns and rural inhabitants, harbor sympathy for the Taliban.
Despite myriad threats and concerns, Afghans turned out in record numbers for a largely peaceful polling process. No major security upsets occurred during the election, although a total of 20 people were killed in the space of 24 hours in 140 attacks around the country according to Afghan Interior Minister Mohammad Umar Daudzai.
About 7 million of 12 million possible voters cast their ballots, up from the 4.5 million voters in the 2009 election plagued by fraud. Many expressed hope for security and an election free from fraud, while others expressed pride their participation in democracy in the face of the Taliban threat. Afghan lawmaker Shukria Barakzai stated at a polling station in Kabul, “As much as they killed our children, our journalists and innocent women, we say no, we will go and vote because we are fed up. We want to see real change, we want to enjoy our democracy.”
Preliminary (albeit partial) numbers suggest that Interior Minister Abdullah Abdullah may emerge the victor in the race, with Karzai’s preferred successor a distant third–perhaps a telling referendum on his tenure as president. However, official results will not likely be announced before April 24th, and a runoff is likely to follow in late May or early June.
And even when the election is settled, the uncertainty about the country’s future is likely to persist for some time–the caution which frames the Afghan peoples’ optimism and resolve in defiance of their tumultuous history.