Afghan vote for new president marked by risks and determination

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This 5 April, Afghans head to the polls in the third presidential elections to be held since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. In the previous polls, the democratic process was spoilt by widespread fraud. More than a million votes were disqualified in 2009 and there are few signs that this time will be different.

President Hamid Karzai will step down. He has served for as long as Afghanistan’s constitution permits. That should make this election the country’s first democratic transfer of power. Karzai has made clear, however, that he plans to stay in politics, perhaps as an ambassador.

Among the three leading candidates to succeed him, former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul is the most likely to give Karzai what he wants. Karzai’s influence may give him a slight edge over former ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzi.

Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and racial variety makes it probable that there will be two rounds of voting.

Taliban insurgents have vowed to disrupt the election and have staged deadly attacks almost daily, recently, killing both Afghans and foreigners, including two attacks in one week on the Election Commission.

Yet, in spite of the violence, many Afghans are determined to take part in the historic vote.

One shopkeeper said: “I’m confident our security forces can keep the polls safe. Everyone should come out to vote for their favourite candidate.”

International forces are set to end their Afghan mission in December, after 13 years of trying to rid the country of war. If the election results are seen to lack legitimacy, it could spell doom for stability.

According to military expert Javid Kohistani: “If the Bilateral Security Agreement is not signed with the United States, international aid for Afghan forces will stop coming. Without foreign troop support they are powerless against the terrorists and fundamentalists.”

The leading candidates say they support a deal that would keep US troops in Afghanistan. Karzai has been blocking it.

Confidence in the polls’ outcome is far from guaranteed. Even the leading candidates have expressed concerns about ‘industrial-scale cheating’.

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