Millions of Afghans are being asked to defy Taliban threats and cast their votes Saturday for a new president. But Afghans and analysts say that their biggest fear is that the elections will be marred by fraud, and losing candidates will not accept the results. That, in turn, could lead to greater unrest, instability and violence.
So far, there are three front runners: Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Zalmai Rasoul, also a former foreign minister. Apart from differences in personal style - Ghani is seen as a rigid stickler for form, Abdullah as a well-dressed aristocrat, and Rasoul as a reserved technocrat close to President Hamid Karzai -- there is not much difference in campaign messages.
All three are vowing to fight corruption, improve the weak economy, create jobs, rule with good governance and lead the country forward. Each one has indicated he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Washington. And all three are paying some form of lip service to women’s rights.
But Abdullah has taken a tougher stance toward the Taliban, and vows to change the current political system that puts most power in the hands of the president, to a parliamentary system.
Election officials are hoping some 12 million voters will defy Taliban threats and cast their ballots. And some 300,000 military and police personnel have fanned out across the country to protect some 6,400 polling stations to make sure that will happen.
But on the dusty, gritty streets of Kabul, voters like Mullah Mohammad Aman are more worried about election fraud, and how the candidates themselves will react to the ballot results.
“Any candidate who wins the election cleanly, we will accept him. Our concern is about fraud, if there is fraud and the elections go to second round, then this nation, which has already suffered so much bloodshed, will again suffer from violence,” he said. “We call on all the candidates to respect the people's vote."
Afghans still remember the widespread allegations of vote-rigging, ballot-stuffing, ghost-ballots and overall corruption that marred the 2009 elections. In the end, President Hamid Karzai won that ballot before a second round after Abdullah Abdullah withdrew his candidacy.
According to United Nations officials in Kabul, election officials are much better prepared this time around. Some 750 polling stations in insecure areas have been closed, far fewer than the 2,000 that were closed in 2009.
Some analysts also fear Karzai's strong patronage system may corrupt the outcome.
“The commission is appointed by Karzai, so not only is he appointing the Independent Election Commission that runs the elections, and therefore is responsible to him, he is appointing the people who will determine if there’s any irregularities, and as a result it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the electoral system,” noted Peter Galbraith, former UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan.
Most Afghans expect a degree of corruption, no clear winner, and a second round of voting. But analysts say it will be enough if Afghans themselves -- and the candidates -- are willing to accept the final results.
Andrew Wilder of the Unites States Institute of Peace says some of the leading candidates have already been talking about post-vote consensus building. “I think they understand better anyone what’s at stake here, and that there is probably going to be a need for some kind of government of national unity where some of the candidates who lost are accommodated by the winners.”
Preliminary results are to be released on April 24, more than two weeks after election day. The final tally is expected May 14. If there is no clear winner, a second round run-off would be held within two weeks. But candidates and their supporters are already saying they will refuse to recognize the results if they suspect fraud.
The office of Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) is modest, and like most offices here, is hidden behind high metal gates topped with razor wire. The Taliban has repeatedly vowed to kill those taking part in these elections.
Spinghar says it's essential that the losing candidates accept defeat. "Politically, the international community and Afghan civil society together should play a kind of role to try and convince these candidates that they should reach an agreement on some general principle where they accept the final result."
This election is seen as vital for Afghanistan's stability and political and economic future. It is also a test of the Afghan security forces’ ability to rebuff militant attacks and keep their nation secure.
Militants are equally determined to derail the vote. Acting director of the National Directorate of Security, Rahmatullah Nabil says various militant groups, including the Pakistan Taliban, are joining forces with the Afghan Taliban in an attempt to achieve that objective.
Many voters are waiting until election day to decide whether it is safe enough to go their local polls. The recent high-profile bloody bomb and gun attacks in Kabul and around the country have left many nervous. Which means that on the eve of this crucial vote, it is still not clear who will win, and therefore what direction Afghanistan will take for the next five years.