KABUL -- Afghans head to the polls on April 5 to elect a new president in what many are hoping will be the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s turbulent history.
The stakes are high, as the new leader will guide the country as foreign combat troops prepare to pull out by the end of the year, leaving Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban. Billions of dollars in foreign aid are tied to the government's holding a free and fair election, the first independent vote organized by Afghanistan without direct foreign assistance.
Three contenders are expected to dominate the eight-man race to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled for 12 years and is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. The front-runners are former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and two former foreign ministers, Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rasul.
Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, says that with no clear favorite among the three leading candidates, the election is expected to be the most open and unpredictable since the first democratic election was held in the country in 2004.
"The big difference this election is it's the first time there’s a competition where the field is very open, where it’s not obvious who’s the strongest candidate, and it’s not obvious who is going to win," Van Bijlert says.
Two of the most high-profile candidates, Abdullah and Ghani, head into polling day with similar levels of support, while Rasul trails behind in third place. All three are reformist, Western-backed candidates who have formed broad-based, multiethnic tickets in order to appeal to the widest pool of voters possible. The election will likely see ethnic-based voting blocs split.
Abdullah, Karzai's main rival in 2009, is of mixed ethnic Tajik and Pashtun heritage. He has tried to expand his traditional support among the Tajik community -- which comprises around 27 percent of the population -- by wooing Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, who make up around 42 percent of the population.
Ghani, a Pashtun academic and former World Bank official, has tried to bolster his support base by appealing to conservative Pashtun voters and securing the ethnic Uzbek voting bloc.
Rasul, considered a status quo candidate, has tried to improve his appeal by including a woman and a prominent Tajik as his running mates.
"The candidates are quite similar in the way they have handled their campaigns, which are all strongly patronage-based," Van Bijlert says. "Through the big rallies they try to give an impression of huge momentum and popular backing, but the real campaign is based on gathering as much local support through local influentials as they can -- at all levels."
Deal-Making, Disputes, Delay?
With no clear front-runner, it's unlikely that any of the candidates will secure more than the 50 percent of the vote required to win outright. In that case, there will be a runoff between the two leading candidates on May 28.
Preliminary results from the first round are expected on April 24 and a final result on May 14, around six weeks after voting day. A similar timetable for a runoff could delay the transfer of power until July -- or even later. Karzai’s term in office legally ends on May 21 unless the election ends in a runoff.
Between election day and the inauguration of the new president, there will be a long period of deal-making, debate, and disputes that could delay and complicate vote counting.
In a break from the past, candidates have held scores of big rallies around the country. Past election gatherings were smaller, fewer in number, and less organized. The role of social media has similarly increased, with many candidates and their supporters active on Twitter and Facebook. Meanwhile, the Afghan media has played a major role in the campaigning itself as well as in the reporting of it. Numerous TV channels and radio stations have held live presidential debates.
Insecurity, endemic corruption, the economy, and a crucial bilateral security agreement with the United States have dominated the campaign. Karzai has left the signing of the agreement -- which would authorize a small residual U.S. force to train Afghan forces beyond 2014 -- to his successor. All the candidates back the deal. Karzai’s unwillingness to sign the deal has strained relations with Washington. Repairing those ties will be a priority for the next president.
With no proper electoral roll, turnout will be hard to assess, but officials say they are confident that it will be much higher than in previous elections. Only around one-third of eligible voters cast their ballots in 2009. According to figures published by the Independent Election Commission, around 3.8 million new voters registered for the election. Around 35 percent of new voters are women, who are expected to play a larger role in the election.
Although some 12 million people are eligible to vote, more than 20 million voter cards have been distributed to date, making the vote vulnerable to massive fraud. More than 6,000 voting stations will remain open on election day while dozens more, mostly in insecure areas in the south and east, will not open due to security reasons.
Insecurity and fraud are the main threats to the vote. The Taliban, which has promised to disrupt the election, has carried out a string of deadly attacks across the country, killing dozens of people. Meanwhile, candidates have said they will not tolerate the massive fraud and vote-rigging that marred Karzai's reelection in 2009.
Waliullah Rahmani, the director of the Kabul-based Center for Strategic Studies, says the prospect of a disputed result and instability looms large in the country.
"If the candidates don’t accept the election results because of fraud, I think the only thing that it will lead to is violence," Rahmani says. "If the political process stops, the alternative will be violence and renewed war, which is not in the interests of the country."