In the Islamic world, Afghanistan is a trailblazer in one respect: it was the first Muslim country that introduced constitutional government and heralded various social reforms on several occasions in the 20th century. Today’s Afghan Constitution is modeled on the avant-garde 1964 text that ushered in a decade of democratic reforms. In the ensuing years, a series of political catastrophes upstaged the move towards democratic reform – especially the Soviet invasion which culminated in the dissolution of USSR – and 9/11, which ultimately resulted in US invasion of the country.
Polls in Afghanistan over the first weekend of April marked the country’s first democratic handover of power, yet another defining moment for the strategically placed landlocked mountainous country. Almost seven million Afghan voters including 36% women stood for democracy by rejecting the Taliban caveat to boycott the elections. The buildup to the presidential and provincial elections was marred by suicide bombings and other violent attacks, including the shooting of a well-known AP journalist and the kidnapping and killing of a provincial candidate and his supporters by the Taliban.
Despite such sporadic negative developments, the hopes for stepping towards a brighter future are strong. The voter turnout was so high that some polling centers ran out of ballots while others remained open an hour past scheduled time to accommodate the long lines. The vicious Taliban campaigns and violence had necessitated heavy security arrangements. The militants had left no stone unturned while issuing threatening statements trying to intimidate the citizens into staying away from voting.
However, the Taliban’s agenda of violence during the polls and transitional turmoil across the country had affected citizens to a lesser extent this time. The threats to women voters also remained futile. These factors are a clear indication of the sense of defiance among Afghan population to Taliban’s crude threats of violence. For a people who have nothing more to lose to violence, there comes a watershed moment, and by the looks of it this has come in Afghanistan.
The country’s first democratic transfer of power to a new government is significant. They will want a stable relationship with the west, particularly with the US. The future of that relationship is heavily dependent upon good governance and improved security measures despite having a long and troubled legacy of the turbulent past. The Karzai administration has been widely criticized as he remained unsuccessful in addressing the rampant corruption and poverty in the country, which has continually wracked Afghanistan after its 13 long years in a state of war.
The result of the first round of polls should arrive by mid-May. According to early estimates, Abdullah Abdullah, the leading opposition candidate, is ahead of his main rival Ashraf Ghani, and a run-off vote is likely in early June. For the ultimate winner, there are many challenges ahead, primarily dealing with the domestic security situation as US-led combat troops leave Afghanistan later this year. Balanced relations with Pakistan are another crucial aspect, especially dealing effectively with cross border movements of insurgents. The Durand-Line issue has its roots in the 19th Century, and still remains unresolved. As a consequence, ties with Pakistan are strained.
Given the Afghan endorsement of democracy and reform, it should be a key priority of the new elected president to have serious breakthrough on foreign policy matters and also for Pakistan to offer a new paradigm of statesmanship.
Afghan voters demonstrated their courage in polls, but, that was only half the battle. A transparent and objective vote counting process and candidates’ mature behavior will complete the victory of the democratic process. It will also determine whether or not the country sees a relatively smooth transfer of political power. How Afghanistan sails through this turbulence will largely determine the future of peace in south Asia.
Haroon Mustafa Janjua is a freelance writer and independent researcher in Islamabad