This is a momentous day in Afghanistan. Millions of people are expected to participate in an election to choose the country’s next president.
It could be a resounding affirmation of the decision by then-president George W. Bush, more than a decade ago, to lead an international coalition that invaded the country and ousted its Taliban leadership.
It could represent the first peaceful transition of government in Afghanistan as President Hamid Karzai steps down.
Of course, it could signal something much worse, as well. Taliban violence could mar the fledgling republic’s efforts to gain a stronger foothold on freedom. But there are plenty of reasons for optimism, as well as for believing that even widespread violence might be only a temporary setback to an inevitable tide toward self-government.
The biggest reason for this optimism lies in the candidates themselves. The two front-runners are educated, credible leaders with plenty of experience internationally and as part of the Karzai administration.
The presumed favorite, Ashraf Ghani, earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University in New York City. He has been the nation’s finance minister and formerly worked for the World Bank on international development assistance.
The other leading candidate, Abdulla Abdulla, is an eye doctor who most recently served as foreign minister.
Just as important as their credentials, however, is the way in which both candidates have made efforts to integrate their campaigns among multiple ethnic and tribal lines, a significant act in a nation often divided along those lines.
Ghani is a Pashtun, but his running mate is Uzbek. Abdullah is a member of the Tajik ethnic group, but his running mate is a Hazara, and a Pashtun also is closely aligned with the ticket.
Then there is the expected turnout, which some estimate might be as high as 70 percent or more of eligible voters. Polling indicates about 75 percent say they intend to vote, but even if turnout is as low as 60 percent it would be impressive.
Such a large participation would indicate a strong desire by Afghanis to establish a republican government. Because the Taliban strongly opposes the election, its members will not participate, except possibly in violent ways intended to thwart democracy. But their tactics are well known, and a large turnout would signal mass defiance of such dangers, as well.
Finally, all the major candidates indicate they would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States once they are in office. Karzai has refused to sign this pact, which provides for a residual force of U.S. military to remain the nation as advisers. Polls indicate most Afghanis support keeping a U.S. presence on hand as the nation struggles to maintain independence.
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The election four years ago was marred by irregularities and corruption. It would be naïve to think those elements have been eradicated. Nor should anyone discount the dangers posed by the Taliban or other terrorists who may enter the country in a desperate attempt to stamp out democracy and its attendant rights.
Nor is it likely this election will be decisive. With a slate of several candidates, a runoff election in June likely will be needed.
But the campaign season has featured intelligent debates, voter enthusiasm and widespread coverage by a growing free press. Americans, who have spilt precious blood in a decade-long struggle, have plenty of reason to cheer a successful election.