Afghanistan votes

The voting for the next Afghan president is an historic event.

This election is Afghanistan's chance to put the traumatic past behind and move forward, writes Medley [Reuters]

The vote on April 5 for a new president, and the overlooked provincial councils, is a remarkable achievement for Afghanistan and its people. Few Afghan leaders in the last four decades have left the grand palace in the centre of Kabul willingly and peacefully or even alive. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term and he’s stated many times that he’s happy retiring as a former civil servant. That in itself is his key legacy to his country.

For the Afghan people there was no alternative to having these elections, even if there will be considerable violence and expected fraud: The election for a new president and the political transition has to happen. With the Election Commission fully organising the elections itself (with international support and funding and international military support to the Afghan National Security Forces), there is a sense of pride in Afghanistan that the vote is taking place in defiance to Taliban threats.

The candidates

At this late stage there appears to be three front-runners with neither likely to get an all out majority, leading to a run-off second round.

Former foreign ministers Zalmai Rassoul and Abdullah Abdullah are clearly facing a strong challenge from former finance minister Ashraf Ghani. Based on his number of Twitter followers Ghani is more than 10,000 ahead of Rassoul, who has around 1,000. But this is Afghanistan so social media and opinion polls are not an accurate measure of support. Leaders need large crowds, grassroots tribal support and powerful backers.

undefinedRassoul fits the profile of a future president well. He is the least divisive of the candidates and seems to be the compromise figure that has emerged after months of discussions and probably backroom deals. He also does not have any blood on his hands. Some might say he’s weak, though it’s doubtful if anyone who’s weak could survive at such a high level in Afghanistan. At 71 he’s older than most of the other candidates and so he is unlikely to serve two terms.

Of Pashtun descent, Rassoul ticks the ethnic majority card and at the same time looks to the minorities with his vice-presidential candidates (including a woman) covering the important Tajik and Hazara communities. More importantly Rassoul, like Karzai back in 2001, is a relatively unknown figure. Afghans are tired of war and the strongmen leaders that brought so much bloodshed. Rassoul is the coalition and compromise candidate, who Karzai’s brother supported by withdrawing from the presidential race. So he looks set to move into the famous Arg Palace.

What next?

According to the constitution everything should be decided by the end of May, even an expected second round. But in 2009 voting led to a seemingly endless complaints process after widespread fraud. A second round was supposed to take place, but Abdullah, who ran against Karzai that year, withdrew. And even with the result being declared in November, Karzai was inaugurated in December.

Inside Story – Holding democracy hostage in Afghanistan?

And here lies the uncertainty. A second round probably means voting has to take place before the holy month of Ramadan starts at the beginning of July. That would be unlikely to generate a confirmed result before August.

So will the winner take power immediately or will it take weeks or months of further negotiations and compromises to build a new government? An outright winner in the first round should be more eager to take the reins earlier and will be in a stronger position to take power, but a second round will prolong the process. Hopefully with an election relatively free of trouble, a result acceptable to both the voters and all key political players, Afghanistan might have a new leader just before or at the latest just after Ramadan. Any further delay will only create further instability.

Afghanistan’s security and future

The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be unstable and the Taliban, threatening to disrupt the election, have launched high-profile attacks across the country.

This situation might be further complicated by the imminent withdrawal of international forces. By the end of 2014 the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force ends its combat mission and most foreign troops will have to depart.

Despite possible security complications, the international combat mission should end because over the last few years the Afghan army and police have stepped up to defend their country. During the 2009 elections there wasn’t much of an Afghan security force to speak of. Now they are firmly taking control of operations and determined to secure the chance for people to vote.

Of course they will need further training, funding and equipment. And that’s what NATO is prepared to offer with a new training, advice and assistance mission post-2014.

There’s been concern that President Karzai hasn’t signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States to allow forces to stay in Afghanistan. Such an agreement is also needed for a new NATO mission. By not signing Karzai is protecting himself from a legacy of being the one who allowed foreigners to stay in Afghanistan.

But all the presidential candidates have made clear they will sign this agreement. Prudent military planning is being conducted, so the hope is that an agreement can be signed immediately after a new leader takes office.

This agreement will be a huge confidence boost for Afghanistan and the international community and a chance to reset their relations. With a new president and a new government ready to tackle the huge problems Afghanistan faces, everyone can move on from the stalemate that has been created by the poor relationship between Karzai and the US.

The first challenge for the new president will be to invigorate the peace process and relations with Pakistan. Additionally, urgent attention needs to be paid to issues of security personnel support and training, corruption problems and poverty. Afghanistan’s future leader also has the tremendous responsibility on his shoulders to energise the population, and especially the youth, to believe in him and his team for the next five years while he still has the support and finance from the international community.

Despite the ongoing conflict and future challenges, there is room for hope in Afghanistan. The vast majority of Afghans have seen the most remarkable changes in their country, and, believe it or not, more peaceful times with opportunities created for many. In the 1980s the Soviets didn’t care about civilian casualties. In the 1990s the civil war wrecked cities with thousands of rockets raining down daily. And the Taliban years from 1996-2001 took Afghanistan back to a medieval time which saw millions of people subjected to unheard of brutality.

This election is Afghanistan’s chance to put the traumatic past behind and move forward.

Dominic Medley is a former NATO civilian spokesman in Afghanistan (2010-2013). He worked in Kabul from early 2002 as a media trainer and UN press official.