Masood has been queuing since two in the morning and still trails 20 others at 10:30 a.m. He hopes that by the end of the day he will have his voter ID card in hand. It’s a sight that has to be seen to be believed. The voters’ registration office in the Karte Char area has never been as busy as it is these days — a few days before general elections in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, a day before the electoral registration ends, hundreds of men and women were standing in queue to enter the office of the registration officer to get their voting cards made.
The number of officials handling the process is limited, and the queue gets bigger and bigger every hour. However, the crowd is not getting impatient. They are determined to have in hand the all-important card which will entitle them to enter the polling stations. Compared to the worries an outsider might have about the growing sense of insecurity and violence in the country in the run up to elections on April 5, people here show an amazing amount of zeal to vote despite of the security situation.
“Every time the Taliban indulges in violence, our determination to challenge them grows further. We are not scared to participate in the elections. People who disturb the election don’t want our country to be peaceful,” says Masood, 31, who works as a contract laborer in Kabul.
The same feeling is echoed by Tamanna Nadiri, 24, a student at Kabul University. She has been waiting for over two hours outside the office to have receive her voter ID card.
“We are participating in the election and my vote is not only for selecting a leader for the country but also my way of fighting the extremists who have been disturbing our lives regularly,” asserts Nadiri.
Contrary to popular perceptions that the deteriorating security situation has a dampening impact on the electorate of the landlocked country, the people’s enthusiasm belies those concerns. The number of people attending political rallies across the country sends a different message. On the last day of campaigning on Wednesday, I attended two rallies: one by presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah and another by his opponent Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Both are top contenders for the presidency.
More than 100,000 people waited for over three hours to hear Abdullah at Koh Daman, some 20 kilometers away from Kabul. One local journalist informs me that compared to the rallies in Northern Afghanistan, where over 300,000 normally attended, Wednesday was a rather tame affair. Without fearing for their lives and without bothering about the Taliban threat, these people came to support their candidate of choice.
The scene was similar in Kabul’s Loya Jirga Khaima, the venue of Ashraf Ghani’s meeting. Thousands turned up — mostly youths — to listen to the candidate who is supposed to be the front-runner in the elections.
“The election is about our future. If we fail to rise up now history will condemn us. We will fail to build a peaceful future by not casting our vote. By coming here I want to tell the extremists that the people of Afghanistan are not with you,” says Karima Omary, a 23-year old student of medicine who dreams of opening her own nursing home in Kabul after finishing her studies.
For a journalist such as myself who witnessed the 2009 presidential election, the mood this time is very upbeat. The enthusiasm of the new generation is infectious. The sense of political participation one sees this time was missing five years ago. The campaigning was not that intense and there was a visible disconnect between the candidates and voters then. Presidential hopefuls did not discuss their future plans and political agendas as vociferously as they do now.
Afghanistan has never witnessed this sort of a tryst with destiny in its recent and past history. Peaceful political transition has not been in its DNA. This is the first time the Islamic country will see the evolution of a new political culture.
In 2009 it was a fait accompli that Hamid Karzai would be reelected. This certainty and lack of options bred apathy among voters. This was reflected in the low voter turnout and subsequent rigging of election results.
The situation however is different this time. With Karzai out of picture, all the candidates are new and people are willing to experiment with the new entrants. Presidential hopefuls have also shown a greater willingness to engage with voters and educate them about their policies and programs through direct debates on TV, a novel development in a country which has just a decade of experience with democracy.
People are now feeling a greater sense of democratic empowerment with the power to vote.
“I don’t care about violence on election day. I want to vote. I don’t want my future to be hijacked by extremists as they have done in the past. This election is important for the future of this country and therefore it is important to cast the vote fearlessly,” says Taqi Bakhtiyari, a writer in Kabul.
The overwhelming opinion, particularly among the youth, is that one must vote. Therefore electoral malpractice and fraud on election day would be a huge setback not only to the aspirations of the people but also to the institution of democracy itself.
“Large scale fraud or what I call industrial fraud will damage the future of the nation. It will be a setback to the aspirations of the people and strengthen those extremist forces which want to destroy democratic institutions,” said Abdullah Abdullah in an interaction with The Diplomat. He lost out in 2009 due to massive fraud in the elections. He compromised under international pressure then but this time he warns that there is no room for compromise.
Another important aspect of the election campaign this time has been a growing and vocal condemnation of the Taliban from the supporters of all major candidates. Attacks on the Taliban by civil society groups, media and other sections of the society have never been so vociferous . This open defiance is a novel phenomenon in Afghan society.
The election on April 5 will not only test the democratic potential of the country but will also send a strong message to insurgents about the resilience and defiance of the new generation against the medieval politics practiced by the Taliban.