Kabul—Today, after Kabul and most of the other major cities in Afghanistan turned into ghost towns over security concerns, Afghans are going to the polls to choose their next president.
Despite the insecurity, it is hard to miss out on the opportunity to participate in this opportunity for change through the ballot box. The people of Afghanistan seem to be aware of the significance of this election.
Presidential elections in Afghanistan take place every five years, which means the winner will remain at his post until 2019. Hamid Karzai, the first transitional president, was elected twice. His re-election in 2009 turned into a dispute over widespread electoral fraud and voter intimidation. In those elections, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main rival, claimed victory for himself. The subsequent inquiry, launched by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission and international observer missions, revealed systemic fraud in Karzai’s favor. At first, Karzai accepted the calls for a second-round run-off vote, although that was eventually cancelled after Dr. Abdullah withdrew.
In this poor and troubled country, holding a national election is a very difficult and costly endeavor. Dr. Abdullah withdrew from the run-off because of his concerns about security and the cost of another vote, as well as because he felt a second run-off could not be free and fair, either.
I remember well five years ago, right after the elections, asking Dr Abdullah if he was going to call for a national protest and ask his supporters to rally against the outcome of the elections. He told me he would never agree to jeopardize national security for his own gain: “Our country is not stabilized, and that sort of activity in the streets can go out of control. Terrorists could also penetrate the crowds and take advantage of the opportunity to generate chaos.”
But Dr. Abdullah, who is running again this time, says he wouldn’t keep quiet if major fraud is reported again. In a country where corruption and fraud are part of the daily routine, the chances of having a fair and transparent election are not great.
People here talk about Zalmai Rasoul, the candidate supported by Karzai, as very likely to replace the current president. Due to security concerns, at least 748 voting centers are closed today. While many of these centers are obviously too unsafe, a few presidential candidates have launched accusations against Karzai that he has intentionally ordered the closing of those centers, because they are in remote areas where he has few supporters and his opponents many.
While there is apprehension about the transparency and fairness of today’s elections, the major concern remains the Taliban’s promise to disrupt the process. The whole country is in high alert after a series of recent explosions and attempts to launch suicide attacks against civilians, both foreigners and local Afghan election commission workers. On Thursday, just two days before the vote, most of the guesthouses and restaurants in Kabul where foreigners normally hang out were closed, and there are restrictions on travelling within the city. And, of course, we mustn’t forget the AP journalists who were attacked yesterday while they were covering these elections. One of them has died, and another remains in hospital with serious injuries.
In spite of all the obstacles, it seems that the Afghans are ready to rise to the challenge and cast their votes. Tired of a 12-year insurgency and the instability that characterized Karzai’s presidency, many Afghans fear if they lose this opportunity, the world will abandon them.