Afghan Presidential Election Inspires Voters

Afghan voters go to the polls for the first time in five years to elect a president on Thursday. Voters seem to be more excited about casting a ballot in this election than they were for the first presidential election. It was assumed five years ago that the U.S.-backed candidate Hamid Karzai would win. While President Karzai leads in the polls, analysts say he's not likely to get enough votes to avoid a run-off in October.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Renee, I want to ask you about a different kind of violence – post-election violence - because there have been statements by politicians in recent days if we lose this election, there's going to protests like in Iran recently, but with AK-47's. But you've actually been talking to people in Afghanistan. Do you get a sense that people are willing to accept the results of tomorrow's election?

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

I do get that sense, as a mater of fact. I'm not saying there will be sporadic violence. But, you know, generally, that - that statement came up. It's important to know that was a supporter of Abdullah Abdullah, who is the challenger to President Hamid Karzai. That's a sort of thought that might be offered by someone who thinks they might lose and could be upset about it. He himself, Abdullah Abdullah, actually tamped that down and said no way he was going to bring people out into the street.

INSKEEP: Well, has this election been divisive, given that there are candidates who are sometimes seen as representing different ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, I would say the reverse. I would say that there was a lot of division before this election but during these last few weeks, people have concentrated on their guy. And, well, of course, any election, if you lose it -and people are going to lose in this election - you can have angry supporters.

What's really been happening is people getting excited about voting for somebody, and this is a first in Afghanistan - technically this is their second election. But in 2004 - and I was there - the vote was what you might call a rehearsal. Everybody knew that Hamid Karzai was sort of handpicked by the Americans. They weren't all terribly upset about that; they knew he was going to win, even though there were dozens of other candidates.

In this election, there are dozens of candidates, but four challengers have pushed through to really make a difference in terms of people talking about them. And I spoke - I took to talking to every single person - cab drivers -every single person that I was ever with – Afghan - to find out, you know, are you going to vote and who are you going to vote for?

Sometimes they'd say, oh, that's my business. But mostly, yes, they were going to vote, and they all had candidates and they were all different.

INSKEEP: So, you have...I mean, you can have an election that pulls a country apart or pushes it together. You're saying it seems to be pushing people together. What about the actual candidates that people are excited about? Did you sense, after seeing so many campaign rallies, that Afghanistan is actually presented with a series of serious politicians, having a serious discussion about the country?

MONTAGNE: Well, it's serious politicians. Now, the discussion was something we might all recognize. People were staying from the tough issues, they were smoothing over what they had to say. There was only one candidate, and that was Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, who had a plan. And he was a little like, here's my plan. You can practically see the paper flipping.

But it was actually very welcomed to those who were behind him. And when you talk to people, you get the sense it's a lot of well-educated, urban, young, maybe men. That's who I was talking to.

But in terms of the seriousness, yeah, they're serious about the issue. Their people are serious about putting themselves out there. Ultimately, Karzai actually went up in the polls, because of instead of sitting in the presidential palace and making deals with power brokers, like elders, in some cases - and this is quite controversial - warlords of the old school that many would like to see go away in Afghanistan; get out of politics. Instead of sitting the palace doing that, he at least made a show in these last couple of weeks in going out - as best he could under lots of protection - of going out and holding rallies and talking to the people. A lot of it's staged, by the way but...

INSKEEP: Well, but still, he's out there...

MONTAGNE: He's out there, he's out there.

INSKEEP: ...making (unintelligible). They have staged events here in the United States, I suppose.

When I think about Afghanistan, I mean, it's tempting to think about the country's isolation. A few years ago, you could've easily found a person who'd never made a phone call, never seen a television broadcast, or hardly ever...

MONTAGNE: Didn't know how, didn't know where...a woman said to me, where does the ballot go...

INSKEEP: Didn't know how to vote.

MONTAGNE: ...when it drops into that box? Where does it go? You know, down through the earth, I mean...

INSKEEP: Well, how connected is this society now that several years have passed?

MONTAGNE: Oh, massively more connected. It was even surprising to me, this time, from just two-and-a-half years ago. There were, in 2004, there were a handful of cell phones. They all seemed to be in the hands of either government officials or the Taliban, who were very early adopters of this technology 'cause it helped them.

But by now there are millions of cell phones out there. Everyone has a cell phone. You can practically not do an interview without somebody having to pick up and stop their cell phone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: TV, very, very lively television, local television. Lots of channels, lots of radio. These people are really connected, especially in urban areas.

INSKEEP: MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne is back from a month reporting in Afghanistan, and she's in our studios here in Washington as we prepare for Afghanistan's election. The voting is expected tomorrow.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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