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Race Toward Afghan Election Starts, With Skepticism In The Lead

A campaign banner is posted in Kabul, Afghanistan, for presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah on Sunday.
Omar Sobhani
A campaign banner is posted in Kabul, Afghanistan, for presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah on Sunday.

With the campaign for Afghanistan's April 5 presidential election officially underway, three questions are commonly asked around Kabul: Do you think the presidential election will be held on April 5? Will the election be held at all this year? Who do you think will win?

Right now, 11 men are vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who is term-limited. If the election goes well, it would mark the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history.

The Issue Of Timing

To the first question, Western officials say the vote can happen on time. Ballots have been printed and materials are being distributed to polling centers around the country.

The Afghan government estimates that roughly 10 percent of proposed polling stations will be closed due to insecurity, but that's better than in 2009, when more than 20 percent of polling stations couldn't open.

Weather is a concern because some of the mountainous regions of the country could be covered in snow in early April, making it impossible for people to get to polling stations. But so far it's been a mild winter.

The Taliban says it will do everything it can to disrupt the election and has carried out many more attacks so far this winter than past years. Afghan security forces claim they are prepared to protect voters, and most Afghans say they will not be afraid to vote.

Will There Be An Election?

The question of whether the election will happen at all this year reflects people's suspicion that Karzai will find some excuse to delay or cancel the vote to stay in power. For example, if the Taliban unleashes a wave of violence in the weeks before the election, many Afghans and Western officials speculate Karzai might claim the conditions are unsafe and the election must be postponed.

There is also speculation that Karzai might claim that there's a possibility of starting peace talks with the Taliban, and he could then say the election must be postponed to allow talks to proceed. This, however, is an extreme long-shot, as the Taliban has always said it will not talk with Karzai.

For his part, the president has said repeatedly the election will take place on time, and he's not interested in staying in power any longer.

The Players

Afghan presidential candidate Qayum Karzai is the elder brother of President Hamid Karzai, who is reaching the end of his term limit.
Wakil Kohsar / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Afghan presidential candidate Qayum Karzai is the elder brother of President Hamid Karzai, who is reaching the end of his term limit.

Now comes the fun question: Who will win? Western officials in Kabul say four of the 11 candidates are serious contenders: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the leading opposition figure in the country and the 2009 runner-up; Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and ex-World Bank official who garnered about 3 percent of the vote in 2009; Zalmai Rassoul, the former foreign minister who is considered by many here to be Karzai's "Medvedev"; and lastly, Karzai's brother Qayyum.

There are growing reports that the remaining candidates are negotiating with the front-runners to sell their support in exchange for money and positions in the next government. This has been expected.

Every official I've spoken with expects the election to go two rounds because no one will garner more than 50 percent in the first. Everyone I've spoken with says Abdullah will advance, and either Ghani or Rassoul will be the second candidate.

Candidate Zalmai Rassoul (center) is a former foreign minister.
Ahmad Massoud / Xinhua /Landov
Xinhua /Landov
Candidate Zalmai Rassoul (center) is a former foreign minister.

Karzai and Abdullah are rivals, so it's expected the president will pull out all the stops to ensure victory for whoever is running against Abdullah in the second round. So in office pools around the city, the early money is on Ghani or Rassoul.

The Problem With Polling

Several polls that were commissioned by the U.S. show Abdullah and Ghani with commanding leads over the rest of the field.

But, as we reported last month, polling data in Afghanistan is suspect. Given the levels of fraud and coercion in past elections, it's highly unlikely that the outcome will follow the polling data, and we've just learned that the second and third rounds of polling commissioned by the U.S. embassy in Kabul have been cancelled to fend off accusations of bias.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is expected to be a strong contender.
Shah Marai / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is expected to be a strong contender.

Embassy spokesman Robert Hilton says the "goal of the polls was to better inform the Afghan electorate, candidates and electoral officials on key elections issues, voter attitudes, and level of public support for individual candidates in the election."

Another goal was to help mitigate possible fraud by establishing baseline data. Hilton says the embassy tried to make clear to Afghan officials the polling was not part of an effort to manipulate the election.

However, the Afghan president's office immediately claimed the polls were evidence the U.S. was trying to prop up certain candidates (as the U.S. did in 2009).

So, Hilton says, "in order to avoid any perception — however baseless — of U.S. interference," the embassy has cancelled any future polling.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sean Carberry is NPR's international correspondent based in Kabul. His work can be heard on all of NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.