“I am voting today to secure my grandchildren’s future,” said an octogenarian woman waiting in line at a polling station in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i Sharif. Throughout the day, Afghan media continuously showed live footage of voters standing in long lines: Old men leaning on their canes, women of all ages, first-time young voters, people from all walks of life and hailing from all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups.
The 2014 presidential and provincial council elections opened at 7am on a cold and drizzling morning in Kabul, amid heavy security measures prompted by three deadly attacks the previous week and a Taliban threat to voters. Thousands of people had queued at polling stations at dawn, right after morning prayer.
The air was filled with enthusiasm, hope and a kind of energy that I had only felt on Nowruz 2002, the first Afghan New Year’s Day after the fall of the Taliban. Twelve years later, however, there was an added aura of determination and defiance.
My parents’ generation experienced this kind of euphoria in October 1964, when at the behest of the last Afghan king, Zahir Shah, a new Afghan Constitution had changed absolute monarchy to a constitutional one and had started what is known in contemporary Afghan history as the “decade of democracy”.
My parents’ generation experienced this kind of euphoria in October 1964, when at the behest of the last Afghan king, Zahir Shah, a new Afghan Constitution had changed absolute monarchy to a constitutional one and had started what is known in contemporary Afghan history as the ‘decade of democracy’.
The 1960s were marked with the measured transformation of Afghan society. The multifaceted development agenda produced a better educated elite with various ideological convictions. For the first time, women entered the public sphere in increasingly larger numbers, whether as cabinet ministers, parliamentarians or judges.
The hitherto conservative society did not react in a dramatic manner “because the political elite in Kabul was acting from a high moral ground and truly believed in those reforms”, insisted my grandmother, who after shedding the “chadari”, an all-enveloping veil that also covers the face, went on to be an active member of Afghanistan’s first women’s volunteer organisation.
A coup d’etat that ended the constitutional monarchy in 1973, also suspended the process of democratisation in Afghanistan and triggered three decades of conflict and successive authoritarian governments, culminating in the draconian rule of the Taliban.
By the beginning of 2001, Afghans were so despondent about their fate that in a UN-sponsored psychological study of Afghan children and youth, a majority had responded they did not think they would live to become adults when asked “what would you want to become when you grow up”.
Eagerness and determination
And that generation voted today, with eagerness and determination. Twelve years of the international community’s presence in and attention to Afghanistan, a new constitution that ensures citizens’ rights and places men and women equal before the law, thousands of development projects, unprecedented education opportunities, a fast-expanding private sector, a booming privately owned media, and exposure to the progress of the rest of the world, have contributed in restoring a degree of self-confidence and an awareness of striving for a better future.
One of the highlights of election day was the appearance of Daoud Sultanzoy, one of the eight presidential candidates, at a polling station to vote, alongside his wife. This was the first time, after the fall of the late King Zahir Shah, that an Afghan politician had the courage to bring his wife out in public.
At the Independence Day parade of 1959, the Afghan monarch, his prime minister and all cabinet ministers appeared before the masses with their wives, symbolically launching a carefully orchestrated agenda of opening the public sphere to Afghan women.
I called Sultanzoy to commend him for his bravery. He replied: “It is time for those of us who claim to be educated and who stand for equality, to act according to our claims. You can no longer sell demagoguery to this nation.”
This time around, the Afghan president is barred from running as the constitution places a two-term limit. So, although two out of the top three candidates also ran in the 2009 elections, it is only this time that they entered the race on a level playing field.
It will take a few days to know approximate numbers of voters and vote distributions and two weeks before Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission announces the final figures. But, many observers estimate that around 7 million eligible voters cast their ballots on April 5. That will make a turnout of close to 60 percent, while in 2009 about 4.5 million had voted.
Besides a better awareness of the democratic process and a more egalitarian opportunity for candidates, the high voter turnout was motivated by a determination to protect the past decade’s gains and to continue the modernisation process. Afghan women and youth constitute the biggest stakeholders and stand to lose more should the country return to a conservative and traditional system or even worse, as some predict, a state of chaos.
It is said often that the poll will go to a second round, as it is foretold that none of the top candidates will gain the required 50 percent plus one vote count. It is also predicted that no matter who is announced as winner, the losers will not accept the result and will deem it as fraudulent. This scenario will, no doubt, bring upon a crisis that could potentially end in violence.
There are a number of efforts underway to prevent such crisis by bringing most, if not all, of the top candidates together under a form of a coalition government. Karzai is rumoured to be working hard on bringing Abdullah Abdullah to the camp of his favoured candidate, Zalmai Rassoul, in case there is a run-off against Ashraf Ghani.
In the absence of exit polls, at the end of election day, each camp was claiming to have the highest vote count. Even before the polls closed, there were already cries of foul play by proponents of both Abdullah and Ghani. Taking a sober approach, both candidates stated that they had evidence of violations committed in some polling stations, but that they would rather wait and allow the IEC to do its job responsibly.
Vote rigging is not an imaginary threat and technique to refuse one’s defeat. Just how widely and with how much audacity it will be committed remains to be seen.
Afghan voters demonstrated their courage yesterday, but, that was only half the battle. A transparent and objective vote-counting process and candidates’ mature behaviour will complete the victory of the democratic process. It will also determine whether or not the country sees a relatively smooth transfer of political power.
Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.