Afghanistan heads to the polls Saturday to choose a new president after Hamid Karzai’s 13-year reign and a US-led military campaign which have radically changed the country but failed to defeat the Taliban.
The first round of the election comes as the final 53,000 NATO combat troops head home this year, leaving Afghan forces to fight the fierce insurgency that erupted after the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.
Militant attacks and electoral fraud are the main threats to the vote, which will be Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic transfer of power, as Karzai steps down after serving the maximum two terms in office.
A repeat of the violence and massive cheating that marred Karzai’s re-election in 2009 would undermine claims that a decade of coalition fighting and billions of dollars of aid have helped establish a functioning state.
There is still no clear front-runner among the three leading candidates, raising the prospect of a disputed result and instability as well as a fresh start after Karzai’s long and mercurial rule.
“There is going to be no neutral person to say who has committed fraud and who hasn’t. The international presence has been hugely reduced,” veteran author and Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid said.
Many foreign diplomats in Kabul voice similar concerns, but stress that preparations are far better than in 2009 and that attacks on the campaign have been limited, despite a suicide bomb killing six police in Kabul on Wednesday.
UN deputy envoy Nicholas Haysom said significant steps had been taken to improve security compared with the last election but warned the Taliban threat to disrupt the poll was a concern.
He also added “there will be losers” in the vote and called for candidates to set an example to their supporters during the drawn-out counting and complaints process.
The three main contenders are former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, Karzai’s apparent choice, along with opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah and former academic Ashraf Ghani.
A second-round run-off in May is expected, as no candidate is likely to exceed the 50 percent needed to secure a knockout win on Saturday, and after challenges it could be August before the new president is inaugurated.
“The campaign has so far gone well, with big turnouts at the many rallies,” said Abdul Waheed Wafa, analyst and director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University.
“But the Taliban are serious in their pledge to disrupt the election. People in urban areas are determined to vote. In the rural south and east where the Taliban are strong, it is different, and turnout could be weak.”
With no proper electoral roll, turnout will be hard to assess, but officials say a figure similar to the estimated one-third of registered voters in 2009 would be a major disappointment.
Female voter numbers will also be watched carefully as improved rights have been central to international efforts since the Taliban era, when women were forced to wear all-covering burqas and girls were banned from going to school.
About 1.3 million women were newly registered to vote this year along with 2.5 million men, on top of the estimated 20 million cards already in circulation, several million more than the likely number of eligible voters.
Ahead of polling day, many aid workers, development consultants and contractors have left Kabul and restaurants popular with international residents have closed amid concerns that foreigners are being deliberately targeted.
A charity’s guesthouse and a luxury hotel were hit in recent attacks, while a Swedish journalist was shot dead in broad daylight and an assault on a restaurant in January killed 21 people including 13 foreigners.
Since the fall of the Taliban, Kabul and other cities such as Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif have been transformed, with busy markets, construction booms and choking traffic jams.
But infrastructure remains poor and the new president faces the dilemma of strengthening an economy that is currently reliant on declining aid money.
Karzai is expected to retain some influence after the election, though he says he will act simply as a private citizen ready to give advice when requested.
For many experts, his implicit backing of Rassoul in the election poises an immediate concern.
“Rassoul lacks a sizeable support base among the public, so probably his best chance will be ballot-box stuffing in his favour,” said author and analyst Ahmad Saeedi.
“If the result of the election is rigged, then it will undermine the democratic process, the government system, and threaten to reverse the gains of the past 13 years.”