When we discuss elections in well-established democracies, the question is generally about who will win. For Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential and provincial balloting set for April 4, the question most people seem to be asking is: will the country survive this vote? In this continuation of a two-part series yesterday and today, USIP Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs Scott Smith reflects on the long road toward this monumental transition and the scenarios that could emerge from the impending vote.

election posters
Election posters in Kabul from the 2009 elections. Photo Credit: Flickr/US Embassay Kabul

As the campaign period began in February, I was pleasantly surprised by the maturity of the campaign among the candidates, and the enthusiasm and quality of participation among voters and civil society.

USIP research had shown that many Afghans feared the election might be divisive—pitting elites and groups against each other. So far it has not been that. Candidates have gone out of their way to demonstrate their cross-ethnic appeal, and the terms of discussion have been mostly respectful. The year-long effort among opposition candidates to find a single candidate to lead an anti-Palace ticket failed on that objective, but it taught these candidates how to work with each other.

I had also feared that Afghans would find little reason to vote and turnout would be low. The security risks were too high, and the lesson that they had drawn from 2009 and 2010 was that, however they voted, there would be high-level intervention to find the “correct” result.

Instead the campaign crowds have been massive, the interest in the debates intense. I was in Kabul in February, when the campaign began, and sensed a real enthusiasm for the process. In 2009, most voters did not believe they had a choice -- President Karzai was the incumbent and would win. In 2014, Karzai confronted his constitutional term limit and, contrary to the supposition of skeptics, has thus far resisted the temptation to manipulate an extension. Perhaps for the first time, voters actually face a choice -- and a responsibility -- and this has prompted them to look at this election with more attention and seriousness.

So a number of forces in play could allow not only the fulfillment of minimum political conditions, but a far more democratic result. It may allow the people to have an even greater say on the result than the power-brokers.

Of course, that will depend on people turning out to vote, and on the capacity of the electoral institutions to deter fraud better than they did in the last election. One major impediment to that is the Taliban, who have pledged to conduct a campaign of violence against the elections and have stepped up attacks in recent weeks. Most experts do not believe the Taliban have the capacity to derail the elections, but they do have the capacity to intimidate enough people against voting in areas where the militants have some control. That could create a lopsided result that could be contested, and a political crisis such as we had in 2009. The institution that was instrumental in resolving the crisis in 2009, the Electoral Complaints Commission, was seen as being competent and having integrity. The current ECC is seen as weak and too close to the president, so the danger is a contested result that might not be resolved by electoral institutions within the rules of the constitution.

The second impediment for the election is the palace itself. A contested outcome due to fraud might present the temptation of re-negotiation of the basic power-sharing pact, in which Karzai might try to secure some sort of prominent role. This is highly speculative, and it perhaps does a disservice to the president, who has repeatedly stated his intention to resign after the election. But it is the dominant scenario I have heard in Kabul.

Such a strategy would be a serious miscalculation because it underestimates two critical factors: the difficulty for Karzai to  maintain his own legitimacy if he deems the constitution—the source of his legitimatcy—to be unworkable; and the impatience of the international community with President Karzai in particular.

The international community would find it very easy to work with any of the three front-runner candidates if they are elected legitimately, but not with any of them if they are not. It is important for the future of Afghan stability that the palace takes the same position as the stance that the international community has genuinely adopted this time: support the process, but do not try to influence the outcome.

The bottom line: Afghanistan is not doomed, even as the international community reduces its presence; Karzai’s influence is waning; and political players other than him are becoming increasingly important, even though they sometimes still act as if they are in his shadow.

Nevertheless, the NATO-led coalition and foreign assistance operations need to be responsible in the way they disengage from Afghanistan, and Afghan political leaders need to seize the opportunity that is offered to them by this election. The international community has done well to provide early and sustained support to electoral institutions through the United Nations Development Program, and above all has avoided accusations that it has supported any given candidate.  The candidates, for their part, have honored the competitive spirit of the contest while recognizing the fragile nature of national unity, and taking care not to undermine it.

There is little else the international community can do at this point, because its leverage with Karzai has become almost entirely negative – it can provoke him further, but it has nothing to offer that would induce him to cooperate.

The stage is now set for the next players in this high-stakes process: the voters. A high voter turnout will limit the possibility of fraud, re-legitimize the government that is elected, signal unity and determination to Afghanistan’s neighbors and renew the country’s relationship with the international community.

After many years of pretending that it is so, we now, for the first time, really have an Afghan-led process. Now we have to wait and see where the Afghans lead. But isn’t that, in the end, what democracy ought to mean?

This two-part series is adapted from a speech Smith gave in Oslo, Norway, on March 19 for Afghanistan Week, organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

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