Afghanistan experienced yet another defining moment as millions of Afghans braved suicide attacks, roadside bombs, intimidations and even unexpected stormy weather conditions to take part in the presidential elections’ expected to produce the country’s first democratic and peaceful transfer of power. That is if, in spite of a possible run-off, the next steps in the electoral process will allow for some degree of transparency and vote count validity during the complaints period.
More than 7 million Afghan voters, at least 35 per cent of whom were female, sent a strong and clear message in support of democracy to the world, including election spoilers, stressing that nothing can stop them from exercising their constitutional right to elect a new leader and, more importantly, they rejected the Taliban narrative.
Earlier this year, the Taliban issued statements denouncing elections and threatened to punish anyone associated with the process. However, a string of violent attacks leading to elections failed to dissuade Afghans from voting, but took the lives of dozens of civilians and security forces.
Contrary to expectations voiced by election cynics, Afghans expressed themselves bluntly on polling day to convey the idea that the country is not a 19th century tribal backwater, unfit for democracy or accustomed to internecine conflict as claimed by some observers.
In effect, millions of ballot papers from every corner of the country, representing every demographic group, shot down deceptive narratives spewed over the years describing the Taliban as ‘disenfranchised’ and misunderstood, exemplifying indigenous traditions, and claiming that democracy was a fallacy being forced upon Afghans.
The message to the neighbours and broader region is that Afghanistan is carving a path based on moderation and inclusivity, seeking to live in peace with others, willing to be a partner in the promotion of shared security and prosperity, all the while ready to defend its values and beliefs.
The defiant mood of the Afghans amid the large turnout (at least double to that of the 2009 poll) came as an unexpected reaffirmation of international efforts pursued since 2001 by top contributing nations to help stabilise the country, establish democratic governance and help it rebuild.
However, in order to pursue those objectives per pledges made since 2011 by the international community, there is a dire need to reset frosty diplomatic relations, especially with the United States, and focus on the business of governing effectively once a new team is confirmed for leading the country.
Clearly, the Afghan electorate delivered on its side of the bargain. Now is the time for the system and institutions to deliver by functioning in a credible and transparent manner. The country’s independent election institutions the IEC and ECC, the candidates and the country’s political leadership will need to abide by established rules to avoid any serious discrepancy relating to ballot handling, tallying or adjudication.
Failure to do so would not only jeopardise the outcome of elections, and put the country on an uncertain footing, but it would also be viewed as a conspiracy hatched by certain political quarters. More importantly, it would be viewed by the population as a farce and a mockery of the country’s constitutional order, further deepening political mistrust.
Not only will the fallout reinforce the Taliban’s position at a time when their influence is thought to be waning, but any attempt at massive fraud or tampering would most probably discourage further international support.
Finally, it runs the risk of tarnishing outgoing President Hamid Karzai’s standing, as part of a risky blame game that might ensue.
Karzai is thus far credited with having allowed the process to move forward, and for persuading his brother to drop out of the race in favour of another candidate, even though some rivals saw that as meddling.
Other sectors praised by Afghans for fostering public awareness and supporting the democratic process, are the Afghan security forces who performed with distinction, civil society, the media and international donors who covered the costs associated with holding elections.
In the first 24 hours after polling stations closed, more than 1,200 complaints were filed with the ECC, most pointing to shortage of ballot papers in populous regions, voter influencing or intimidating, late opening of centres, ballot box stuffing, etc.
Election front-runners stopped short of claiming victory, as some warned that fraud could derail the process.
While most analysts believe that a second round is highly probable, there are already overtures by some camps to try to open backdoor channels to explore the possibility of a power sharing arrangement that could lead to the formation of a government of national unity.
While some sides prefer to go all the way in a run-off to seek a clearer mandate, others see the risk of a prolonged race as polarising and destabilising.
In either case, the prerequisite is to get the first round right for now.