Millions of people in Afghanistan will cast ballots this Saturday in an election whose outcome matters less than what it says about the Afghan people’s desire for peace and democracy.
More than 2,500 candidates – including some 400 women – are running for the lower house of parliament and district councils, which is more than ever before. And despite political violence and a flawed electoral process – or perhaps because of them – finding a way to end the long war with the Taliban and other Islamist militants is widely debated.
Getting to this election has been messy. The vote has been delayed three years. There are credible reports of forged voter IDs and stolen ballots. The Taliban claim credit for killing one well-known candidate and are threatening to prevent voting in the more than 40 voting districts they control. Another militant group, Islamic State in Afghanistan, also threatens to disrupt voting with indiscriminate attacks.
While many candidates represent political or ethnic interests, including warlords and political bosses, others embody a new generation of Afghans educated since 2001 who are eager to curb corruption and ethnic divisions and to find a way to peace. Thus, the voting results will send important messages.
The ultimate message is the willingness of Afghans across the country to go to the polls despite the threats and problems. One international election observer underscores this indomitable Afghan spirit by recounting his 2014 meeting with an elderly Afghan who had his ink-stained voting finger cut off by the Taliban. The Afghan was smiling broadly in the hospital, and when the international observer asked why he was smiling, the Afghan proudly held up both hands and said he had nine more fingers to give in nine more elections.
While acknowledging the serious challenges that remain and the strong desire to end the violence, many Afghans still applaud the relative progress since the US-led invasion that ended Taliban rule in 2001. The election will severely try Afghan authorities and likely reveal serious technical flaws. Yet it will also be an important trial run for presidential elections in April.
The Oct. 20 electoral results are expected to produce a muddled parliamentary landscape. Still, Afghan leaders will need to quickly build coalitions and prepare for the presidential contest. And they need to do this while the Afghan government, the United States, and others are probing a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
That militant group has clearly signaled that it is interested in peace talks with the US. Yet it is not yet willing to sit down with the Afghan government. Rather the Taliban has intensified attacks around the country to increase its leverage, as exemplified by the killing of a renown Afghan police general and the governor of the southern province of Kandahar on Thursday in an operation apparently also aimed at the top US commander in Afghanistan. Maintaining trust among the US and its Afghan allies while getting the Taliban to a serious negotiation will be a challenge.
Strengthening the popularity of democracy via elections can erode support for the authoritarian Taliban and build up legitimacy for the participation by all Afghans in choosing their leaders. The Taliban will still try to influence the country’s nascent democracy via violence and political manipulation. But they are running against a tide toward equality and liberty.