On Thursday, Afghans will brave extensive Taliban intimidation and sometimes travel great distances to vote in presidential and provincial council elections. The optimism among the Afghan population following the rout of the Taliban from power has largely dissipated, expectations of vastly improved lives have been fulfilled for only a few, government corruption and ineffectiveness run rampant, and Taliban resurgence threatens the lives of people in much of the south and east of the country. The elections represent a crucial opportunity to give Afghans a sense of at least some control over their future.
Equally important, the elections could reinvigorate and improve Afghan governance -- an absolute necessity for the success of counterinsurgency, stabilization and reconstruction efforts. But even a fair and reasonably violence-free election does not guarantee the much-needed improvements in governance.
In a healthy way, the presidential election, which only a few weeks ago President Hamid Karzai seemed to have sewn up, has recently become considerably more contested. Out of the 41 presidential candidates -- two of whom are women -- four have emerged as the front-runners.
Still ahead in the polls with a substantial lead is Karzai. Nonetheless, the corruption and ineffectiveness of his government over the last four years have greatly diminished his legitimacy and popularity. Thus, to avoid a runoff -- if he gets less than 50% of the vote -- Karzai has struck deals with some of the most notorious warlords and tribal leaders, including Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mohammed Qassim Fahim, Jan Mohammad and Gul Agha Sherzai. In exchange for their delivering the tribal vote in their respective areas in the Pashtun south and east and among non-Pashtuns elsewhere, Karzai has promised them government positions as well as unofficial influence.
Consequently, if Karzai is reelected, these deals bode badly for any improvements in governance. While his ability to divide the opposition and co-opt his opponents during the early post-Taliban period was seen as his strength, Karzai's unwillingness to challenge influential power brokers and make politically costly, but necessary, decisions during his regime have paralyzed and hampered governance at the national and local levels. The Taliban has used this dysfunction and the extensive corruption in the government to mobilize the people.
The candidate who polls second -- between 7% and recently as high as 26% -- is Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister, who is backed by the largest opposition bloc, the National Front. Although Abdullah is part Pashtun and part Tajik, and the National Front at least nominally seeks to present itself as pan-Afghan, the Pashtuns -- the nation's largest ethnic group -- widely perceive the front to be beholden to the Tajiks and other non-Pashtuns of the Northern Alliance. If elected, one of Abdullah's biggest challenges will be to convince the Pashtuns that he is not shortchanging their interests in favor of the northerners.
Although an effective non-Pashtun committed to good and fair governance would be a very healthy step toward state-building and democratic consolidation in Afghanistan, such a leader would be very susceptible to Taliban accusations that Pashtuns are being discriminated against. Indeed, a sense that the northerners have ruled Kabul after the fall of the Taliban at the expense of the Pashtuns has been another key Taliban mobilization strategy.
The candidate surprisingly running third in the polls (at 4% to 10%) is Ramazan Bashardost, a Hazara who earned a doctorate in law in France. Although he served as Karzai's planning minister in 2004, Bashardost is running as the anti-establishment, anti-corruption outsider, proclaiming affiliation with no political party or ethnic group.
The candidate coming in fourth is Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun with a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University whose strategy has focused on young Afghans and women. A highly regarded technocrat and a former World Bank official, Ghani served as Karzai's finance minister between 2002 and 2004. During that period, he issued a new Afghan currency, developed the national budget, launched the National Solidarity Program to support local community development and did not shy from challenging powerful warlords such as Fahim.
The challenge that Ghani and Bashardost, who has less executive experience than Ghani, face if elected is how successful they would be in implementing good policies in the absence of a local power base in a political system in which unofficial power and corruption are pervasive. If a technocrat gets elected, the question would be whether the support of the Afghan people and the international community will be sufficient to offset the political opposition of power brokers whose interests will be challenged.
The more the elections are disrupted by violence, which could keep large numbers of Pashtuns from voting, or are plagued by claims that they were stolen, the bigger the challenges will be. Perhaps one way to reduce the tensions between good governance and local power realities is to create an executive position under the president to be held by a technocrat, a move supported by the international community. Karzai made such an offer to Ghani in exchange for his withdrawal from the race or at least his support in case of a runoff. So far, Ghani has refused. But even if such a position materializes and is occupied by a capable and committed official, it would still be undercut by preelection bargaining deals and unofficial power.
Whatever the election results, the international community needs to make it clear that its assistance to the Afghan government to defeat the Taliban insurgency and to provide security and development is conditioned on improved and accountable governance. Without such reform, the international efforts, no matter how extensive, will be insufficient to achieve the essential security and development goals.