On April 5, 2014, the Afghan nation voted to elect what is supposed to be the country’s first post-ISAF and post-Karzai government. This was the third time that presidential and provincial council elections were held in the country since the overthrow of the Taliban regime over a decade ago. The entire election process, however, is supposed to conclude with the third round of parliamentary elections which should be due sometime next year. This basically means that the April elections mark the beginning of a long-drawn complex process extending over a year. The whole exercise in due course will test the strength and credibility of the Afghan institutions and the resolve of the Afghan people to take the political process to its logical conclusion. It is not merely about change in leadership; it is about ushering the country into a ‘decade of transformation’ (2015-24) by further institutionalising a relatively inclusive political culture which could cater to the rising scepticism as well as aspirations among the Afghan people. It is about building a political order which is in tune with the changing socio-political realities, mindful of the several challenges ahead, the most important being, how to keep the international community engaged. Like the incumbent president, the next leadership in Kabul too will have to confront similar challenges: managing divergent perceptions and factional interests, competing patronage networks and parallel power structures at the sub-national level, seemingly irreconcilable ideological positions of the Pakistan-sponsored Haqqani-Taliban network and, most critically, sustaining the current constitutional framework to the extent possible.
The most immediate challenge before the incumbent government and the relevant election and security institutions is to sustain and strengthen the people’s engagement in the process. It is about institutionalising the trust and confidence that the Afghan people have shown in the democratic exercise, which now depends on the integrity and strength of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the ability of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) to address violations of various kinds and at every level of the process in a timely and convincing manner. The success of April 2014 elections could soon turn into fatal despair if both Afghans and the international community fail to take advantage of the political momentum generated by the election process to further build on the achievements of the past decade.
Compared to the previous two presidential elections held in 2004 and 2009, the April 2014 elections are largely seen as elections with a difference, especially in terms of its timing, background profile of presidential candidates, increased popular participation and a surprisingly low level of violence on the polling day. Though it is still too early to fully assess its overall impact in terms of giving a new direction to the Afghan polity, nevertheless, the election process witnessed unprecedented surge in voter registration and voter turnout, increased women’s participation, wider media coverage including televised presidential debates, youth and civil society activism, support from various local religious heads and, most importantly, the process hardly saw any direct political interference from outside. The preparation for elections was entirely managed by institutions manned and led by Afghans. The Afghan security institutions too, particularly the national army, police and the intelligence, made all out efforts to create conducive security environment across the country for the electorates to exercise their right. As per the preliminary estimates, about seven million of the 12 million or nearly 58 per cent of the eligible voters participated in the polling process, which is said to be the highest since the first presidential election held in October 2004. However, these figures are provisional and could be revised as more information trickle in. The preliminary results are expected to be announced by the IEC on April 24, followed by final results by May 14.