Under threat of Taliban intimidation and explosives, some Afghans made their way to the polls Thursday out of a sense of duty to country and desire for change.
"I would even vote if a Taliban was here and put a gun to my head," says Ghulam Sarwar Hasanzada, a voter at a crowded polling station in western Kabul. "I'm proud of my country and proud to vote."
At one level, today's vote will help Afghans assess who has momentum – President Hamid Karzai, reformers, or the Taliban – in a country where the population often tries to side with the winner.
For the US and other Western nations, today's election comes with the potential of widespread fraud and violent disruptions, which could call into question the legitimacy of the Afghan government and foreign involvement with it.
"Afghans are interested in electing their own government, but the situation is not allowing them to. So for them, the legitimacy of their own government is at stake," says Thomas Ruttig, an Afghan expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "But it's also the image of the international community who came here to stabilize the country and to build up functional institutions, which was only successful to a limited extent."
It's too early for a countrywide assessment of the vote, but violence and technical problems hampered the process in parts of the country. In the capital, Kabul, morning voting levels appeared weaker than in past elections. At several polling stations visited, poll workers said the turnout was between 10 and 50 percent of what was expected. Insurgents detonated a car bomb before polls opened, fired five rockets into the city in the morning, and shot at a police station around noon. Traffic was light with businesses closed for the national holiday; some kites flew in the sky.
Nine rockets crashed into the contested southern city of Kandahar and security forces have found explosive devices in town, says a local journalist, adding that few voters came out in the morning. Meanwhile, large numbers of voters were at polling stations in the eastern city of Jalalabad, says local journalist Fahim Zarak, and in the northern city of Faryab, according to another.
A facet of counterinsurgency strategy
The current government faces a crisis of credibility and the international community fears these elections could deepen questions of legitimacy.
"The reason why we should care is that we need a credible government for the counterinsurgency effort to make any sense. Why are we putting all this money and treasure and loss of life to support a government that doesn't want to be anything but a kleptocracy?" says a top Western expert who cannot be named while serving as an international election observer.
Not everyone agrees that the credibility of today's process is so crucial. "Legitimacy is more shaped by the government's performance after the election," says another expert serving as an observer.
A two-man race
While 41 candidates stood for president, the race has consolidated into a two-way contest between Mr. Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Western nations helped install Karzai in 2002 following the US-backed overthrow of the Taliban. He had the credentials and the right lineage, coming from a highly influential tribe within the largest ethnic group. During the 1990s, while other Afghan leaders racked up atrocities, he spent his time in the Pakistani city of Peshawar where he learned the art of political wheeling and dealing.
"It was not a politics based on statemaking, but on dealmaking," says the second observer. The Obama administration has distanced itself from Karzai, criticizing his alliances with former warlords accused of rights violations and the loss of momentum vis-à-vis the insurgency.
Karzai hopes to cross over the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff through a combination of vote-bank politics and reminding voters how far the country has come since Taliban times.
"We are happy with [Karzai]. In the past six years we had security and a good living. What else do you want?" says Leila, a retired medical worker.
But Ghul Bakht, a woman who voted for Karzai in the first presidential election in 2004, says she voted differently this time because "he has failed his test."
"The change we have seen in our life like girls going to school, women having some freedom ... it's because of the change in the system, not because of Karzai being president," she adds.
Abdullah Abdullah and his wife
Karzai's chief rival, Dr. Abdullah, served under Karzai as foreign minister. He is best known for his role as spokesman for the Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic minority warlords who overthrew the Taliban with US help. While he is ethnically mixed with a Pashtun father and Tajik mother, his close ties to the Northern Alliance dampen his appeal in the Pashtun belt – the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.
He hopes to win by painting himself as the best chance for change and by shifting some of the daunting presidential responsibilities to a prime minister more accountable to the parliament.
He shocked local Afghan journalists when he showed up to vote Thursday with his wife – an uncommon practice in this gender-segregated society.
"Men and women in this country have a responsibility and it's the destiny of everybody, not just men in this country," Abdullah told the Monitor after he voted at his former high school in Kabul. His wife first joked it was a secret whom she voted for, but then said, "I feel quite good about it to come and vote for him."
Abdullah said Monday his campaign had reports of fighting in the provinces of Herat, Baghlan, and Takhar. He expressed hope people would be able to vote.
Interpreting voter turnout
Widespread insecurity would rob the Afghan government of a day to show its resilience and would further hand momentum to the Taliban. It also worries opposition candidates and Western observers alike that it would allow for widespread ballot-box stuffing in areas too dangerous for monitoring.
"I think high reported turnout would put more question marks about legitimacy than low turnout because that would contradict the situation," says Mr. Ruttig.
In restive Paktia Province, the governor told him he expects a turnout of 80 percent, but Afghan election workers give figures between 20 and 40 percent. "If there is a high turnout – among women especially – I think there would be suspicion."
He spent Wednesday night in the southeastern city of Gardez, where young men told him no one had bothered to take out a voting card.
"Some people said it's not worth it, and others have been intimidated," he says. "There were night letters saying, 'we will cut off that finger' "dipped in election ink.
If Karzai fails to win 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election will be held Oct. 1. In that scenario, Abdullah stands a chance of winning, since second-tier candidates are anti-incumbent and less likely to go to Karzai. However, experts caution that the mix of voters who turn out to vote a second time might be dramatically different.