Amid tight security, Afghans lined up on June 14 to vote in the second round of presidential elections to chose the successor of Hamid Karzai, who has ruled the South Asian nation since the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001. The runoff vote pitting former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah (man picture, right) against ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani is set to mark the first democratic transition of power in the war-torn country's history.
Despite being mainly peaceful, polling day saw at least 150 minor attacks, including rockets and roadside bombs. But that didn't keep more than seven million Afghans - out of a total of 12 million eligible voters - from casting their ballots at more than 6,300 polling centers scattered around the country, according to the Election Commission. The poll comes at a crucial time as most foreign soldiers prepare to withdraw by the end of this year. Preliminary results are expected on July 2 and the final result on July 22.
But regardless of who wins the vote, the next administration has a huge task ahead of it. Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says President Karzai will leave behind a country that remains volatile, poor, and, above all, profoundly corrupt, posing major challenges for the future government.
DW: How important is this election for the future of Afghanistan?
This is a critical election. It comes as the foreign troop presence is winding down, and as Afghanistan embarks on a new phase of its troubled history. The most important aspect of the election, however, is its ultimate product.
The election victor will be in a formidable position of having to deal with an insurgency that could be emboldened by the troop withdrawal; to deal with a very troubled economy; and to deal with corruption problems that Afghans across the board are very unhappy about. In effect, the importance of this election lies in the fact that it will bring to power a leader that will have to address some very daunting challenges.
Voting was once again relatively peaceful despite Taliban's threats to disrupt the poll. In your view, why did the Taliban fail to launch massive attacks?
Here, full credit must be given to the Afghan security forces. They managed to prevent many Taliban attacks during the first round of voting, and they have seemingly done so as well this time around. This is an important indication of the improved capacities of fighting forces that in many ways still remain fledging. And this bodes well for what follows next year, when the foreign troop presence is significantly reduced.
Who has the best chances of winning the elections?
The fascinating thing about this election is that neither Abdullah nor Ghani has an obvious edge. Abdullah may have led the voting in the first round, but that has essentially been thrown out the window for the run-off. Both candidates received endorsements from key political players. This was particularly helpful for Abdullah.
By receiving endorsements from some Pashtun politicians, he was able to neutralize Ghani's potential advantage as the Pashtun candidate. Also, their platforms are both very similar: they vow to tackle corruption, improve the economy, and reconcile with the Taliban. It's hard to say one has a stronger platform when in many ways they are practically identical.
Which of the best two candidates has better chances of reaching a peace deal with the Taliban?
Ghani has the advantage here. Abdullah is closely associated with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and he has long been seen as more tough toward the Taliban than Ghani. Abdullah has suggested that he wouldn't be willing to negotiate with the Taliban unless the conditions are right. The Taliban won't easily agree to sit down with someone that once represented its bitter battlefield enemy. Ghani, by contrast, has worked as an economist and scholar, and may be regarded as a more neutral interlocutor.
How big of an issue has corruption been in these elections?
It has been a front-burner issue. There hasn't been a tremendous level of substance on the campaign trail, in terms of describing potential anti-corruption policies, but corruption has certainly been on everyone's mind particularly because it is linked to the security situation. If the Afghan state is seen as corrupt, some Afghans could conclude the government is effectively illegitimate, and attach themselves to a Taliban insurgency that also opposes an Afghan state that it regards as corrupt and illegitimate.
The Afghan election commission chief confirmed a shortage of ballot papers in some areas. Are fraud allegations likely to overshadow the results, especially in the case of a close outcome?
It's too early to tell at this point, though the Afghan election commission has put a lot of mechanisms in place to minimize fraud. There will certainly be fraud, and there will certainly be fraud investigations that take place. However, this process should play out relatively smoothly, and not paralyze the political process. That said, the target date of early August for having a new president in place seems a bit optimistic. I imagine it will be more toward the end of August or even early September.
Abdullah's support is based among the Tajik minority and other northern tribes, while Ghani is a Pashtun - Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, which is strongest in the south and east. How big of an issue will ethnic friction be for the next president?
It's fashionable to hear that Afghanistan's politics is now post-ethnic and that the ethnic divisions of the past have gone away. But in fact, this isn't true. Politics still play out along ethnic lines, and the best evidence of this is how many major presidential candidates put warlords and other unsavory characters on their tickets simply because of their ethnicity and the hope of getting votes from that ethnicity. To be sure, ethnic friction will continue to bedevil Afghan politics.
When Abdullah and Ghani talk about their hopes of reconciling with the Taliban, they should also think of reconciliation more broadly in terms of reconciling Afghanistan's many sparring ethnic factions.
What country does Hamid Karzai leave behind?
He leaves behind a nation that has made great strides since he took office, a country where democracy has taken root, where economic activity has accelerated, and where state institutions have begun to solidify - particularly security institutions. Yet, he also leaves behind a country that remains volatile, poor, and, above all, profoundly corrupt. For all the successes of recent years, the remaining challenges are immense.
What will be the most immediate challenges facing the upcoming administration?
There are three main challenges: Security, the economy, and corruption. And they are all related. A bad economy could prompt some Afghans to join the Taliban because of the promise of a paycheck, just as a corrupt government could prompt other Afghans to join the Taliban.
In effect, by not addressing corruption and economic problems, recruitment to the insurgency could increase, and worsen the security situation. Though it's safe to say many if not most Afghans hate the Taliban and wouldn't want to have anything to do with it, the performance of the government on economic and corruption issues could go a long way in determining the trajectory of the insurgency and, by extension, the security situation.
Michael Kugelman is an Afghanistan expert and senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, where he is responsible for research, programming, and publications on South and Southeast Asia.
The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.