Afghanistan is bracing itself for a presidential election that could be the first truly game-changing event in the country since the 2001 US-led invasion – and according to a local poll commissioned by Al Jazeera, 69 percent say the country will improve over the next five years.
For one thing, the April 5 election will see Afghans choose from a field of candidates that does not include current President Hamid Karzai, who has been in charge for nearly 13 years.
“This is the first time that nobody knows who will be president – this time, there are front runners and there is genuine competition,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, founder and chairman of the Kabul-based Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, a civil society organisation promoting democracy.
“If Afghanistan makes this peaceful transition it would mean that this government and this constitutional set up will not fall apart and will be institutionalised.”
The next Afghan president will also be the one to oversee a peace deal with the Taliban and the pace of the US troop drawdown in the country – a key security and economic concern in Afghanistan and the region.
The April 5 poll is also seen as the country’s first free breath – an election largely untouched and untainted by the West. However, security concerns in the lead-up to the vote and a history of fraud threaten to undermine public confidence in the poll’s outcome.
The Al Jazeera SMS survey, conducted by Impassion, indicates that 79.3 percent of the 992 participants plan to vote, despite repeated promises of violence from the Taliban.
Indeed, the poll, conducted March 16-25, took place after Taliban attacks on hotels, markets and elections commission offices had started.
“Your results are similar to our findings,” said Nadery, noting that 79 percent of the people his group surveyed also said they would go to the polls.
“Also, 92 percent of the 4,040 people we surveyed… in insecure areas, in rural and urban areas, men and women, educated and uneducated, said they supported the idea of democracy,” said Nadery.
“This country has gone through so much – power has been gained through guns and violence and Afghans… don’t feel that the election will be very free and fair – but with whatever shortcomings there will be, they want a peaceful transfer of power.”
Afghanistan ready for elections?
Despite Taliban threats vowing to disrupt the elections – there have already been numerous attacks targeting poll-workers and foreign observers – 85 percent of those surveyed indicated the country was ready for its first-ever independent elections.
But the Taliban have carried out several deadly strikes recently – on the Serena Hotel in Kabul, two attacks on election commission offices in Kabul, a police station in Jalalabad, a Kabul guesthouse and a market in Faryab province.
|Roughly 60 percent chose “improved security” as the top mandate for the next government [Al Jazeera]
After the latest attack on Saturday, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told Al Jazeera that additional security measures have already been put in place.
“We are on high alert and our police and security forces are looking to foil any act by these terrorists,” said Sediqqi.
Al Jazeera’s poll indicates while nearly half of Afghans feel confident that their domestic forces could provide security, 38 percent were somewhat confident of that statement, and 14 percent were not confident that Afghan security forces were up to the job.
Still, Sediqqi points to crowd participation in rallies and campaign events around the country as a sign that Afghans are not afraid to engage in any aspect of the elections. Although there will be increased security around polling stations during Saturday’s elections, Sediqqi said most people there are not the sort to be deterred by the promise of escalated violence.
“This [violence] is not a surprise to Afghan people,” said Sediqqi.
“But we know that this is the most important political event in our history… and we are standing on our two feet.”
Long-term security a top priority
Although rights groups have often focused on things such as access to healthcare and education, as well as improving women’s rights, survey participants had a largely different take on what they want the next government’s top priority to be.
Roughly 60 percent chose “improved security” as the top mandate for the next government, followed by 16 percent for whom “finalising the peace process” was crucial.
The peace process has been a sticking point for outgoing President Karzai, who has refused to sign a bilateral strategic agreement with the US to allow American forces to remain in the country from 2015 and beyond.
Karzai has said he would not sign the agreement until peace is achieved, but has also said the US troops can leave Afghanistan by year’s end and that Afghan forces are capable of defending the country.
The lowest priority of those questioned (which included job creation, access to healthcare and education) was for the next president to “improve women’s rights” – which only 0.4 percent of respondents indicated was of the highest import to them.
“I don’t think that [the low priority placed on women’s rights] reflects reality,” said Helena Malikyar, an Afghan political analyst and historian.
“But if those who are surveyed are mostly men, then I would expect such a result, because women’s rights and position is not a priority for them,” said Malikyar.
Not all respondents included their names, but the vast majority of those who did gave a male name.
Malikyar pointed out if the survey had consciously targeted the young and an equal ratio of men and women, then different results could have been expected.
Still, the high priority on security does not surprise her because it is such a crucial issue.
“People in Afghanistan know that everything else depends on security – the economy, healthcare, education – none of which will flourish without security,” Malikyar said .
Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @dparvaz