Voters in Afghanistan have two big reasons not to go to the polls April 5 in a critical presidential election. A quarter expect the ballot count to be fraudulent. And the Taliban vow to kill anyone who tries to vote. To make their point, Taliban fighters temporarily took over the election commission headquarters in Kabul on Saturday.
Yet despite this perception of fraud and the fear of terrorism posed by insurgents, voter turnout is expected to be high. Surveys show three-quarters of Afghans plan to cast ballots. And the reasons they give pollsters help explain their enthusiasm: The country’s young democracy is still too fragile not to vote, and it has brought too much progress for the country to return to the days of rule by warlords or the Taliban.
For the established democracies in Europe and the United States, where voter apathy is a big worry on election day, Afghanistan’s brief experience with elections remains an inspiration – despite its many flaws. The US and other nations, which have invested so much in Afghanistan since ousting the Taliban in 2001, need to remember this strong democratic sentiment. The election results could be messy and the outcome may be delayed if a runoff is needed. But the seeds of freedom are well planted despite the country’s stony ground of poverty and violence.
This will be Afghanistan’s third presidential election since 2001, but one that will mark its first peaceful and democratic transfer of power. President Hamid Karzai is barred from running again. In addition, the leading candidates say they plan to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US. The pact would allow at least 10,000 American troops to remain in the country to help train Afghan forces and prevent a resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The US military presence is necessary because Afghan forces still need backup. US aid is also necessary to sustain the notable achievements in the economy, women’s rights, education, and basic infrastructure. The world’s fifth poorest country, Afghanistan saw the greatest improvement of any country in human development between 2002 and 2012, according to the United Nations.
The Taliban have been weakened by both the gains in democracy and in quality of life. The group’s recent attacks on election-related offices reveal both its desperation and its ideological dislike of freedom. If the election is seen as largely fair, the next Afghan president will likely be in a strong position to persuade many Taliban followers to join the political process.
In surveys, Afghans say they seek peace and better justice as much as they do an improved democracy. For this election, they will be largely in charge of monitoring polling places. Far fewer foreign observers are involved. Afghans are very aware of the ballot fraud in the 2009 election and eager to prevent it in this one. Such seeds of hope in a budding democracy are well worth watering.