Dispelling widespread gloom around the world regarding Afghanistan’s political future and the Taliban’s efforts to disrupt the elections, Afghans turned out in large numbers at the polling booths on Saturday. According to preliminary estimates, nearly 7 million of the 12 million eligible voters, or close to 60 per cent of the electorate, cast their ballots to elect a new president to replace Hamid Karzai, who has steered the nation after the US forces ousted the Taliban at the end of 2001. The previous presidential election in 2009, marred by allegations of fraud, saw barely a third of the electorate turn out to vote. The enthusiastic turnout this time is a befitting political answer to the Taliban, which mounted attacks that killed scores of people through Saturday.
If none of the eight presidential candidates gets 50 per cent of the votes cast, there will be a run-off between the top two candidates on May 28. Opinion polls showed that the main contenders are Abdullah Abdullah, a runner-up in the last election, and Ashraf Ghani. Running a distant third is Zalmai Rassoul who is said to have the outgoing president’s backing. All three have sought to bridge the deep divide in Afghanistan between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns by choosing vice presidential candidates who expanded their ethnic appeal.
The next president’s political legitimacy, however, will not resolve Afghanistan’s multiple problems. The Taliban continues to enjoy sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. The armed forces of Afghanistan have demonstrated their growing capabilities by securing the nation against violence but remain weak and vulnerable to future destabilisation from the Pakistan army. The nation’s economy is in bad shape as large volumes of foreign aid that flowed in since 2002 dry up. All the presidential candidates have agreed to ratify the security pact with the US that will allow the presence of a few thousand American troops after 2014. Since 2002, India has invested considerable political and economic resources in support of the fledgling democracy in Afghanistan. The next government in Delhi will have to demonstrate much stronger strategic commitment to the unity, stability and security of Afghanistan amid the continuing threats from Pakistan and declining Western support to Kabul.