Some Afghans Already Cynical About Next Year's Election

April 5, 2014 — that's the day Afghans are scheduled to head to the polls to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai. He's constitutionally banned from running for a third term. But, in a country that loves a good conspiracy theory, many think that Karzai will find some way to stay in power. Even if he doesn't, there are still many questions about how free and fair next year's vote will be.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

April 5th, 2014, that's the day Afghans are scheduled to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai. He's constitutionally banned from running for a third term. But his critics and even some of his supporters think that Karzai will find some way to stay in power.

But as NPR's Sean Carberry reports, with or without Karzai, there are still many questions about how free and fair next year's elections will be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: This is the Voter Registration Center at the Zarghona Girls High School in Kabul. Officials are busy interviewing applicants, snapping photos and printing voter registration cards. Everything here today looks up to snuff. But in the 2009 election, there were documented cases of people being given multiple voter cards and cards being sold on the black market.

ABDUL BAQI: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Abdul Baqi studies economics at Kabul University and he's getting a new voter card.

BAQI: (Through Translator) Everybody keeps saying next year's elections will be fair and transparent, let's see what really happens.

CARBERRY: Baqi says the 2009 election was rife with fraud and corruption. The international community agreed.

BAQI: (Through Translator) In the previous elections, officials kept saying that they will be fair and transparent, but it turned out very differently.

CARBERRY: Baqi voted for Karzai in the last election and thinks that one of President Karzai's brothers is going to run this time.

ABDUL RAHMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

CARBERRY: Abdul Rahman(ph), who works in the carpet business, voted for Karzai's opponent last time. This time, he's hoping to vote for Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who was born here and is rumored to be a possible candidate. Many analysts here say that Karzai's looking to manipulate the election to ensure a handpicked successor wins.

But some think Karzai is not looking for a successor.

KHALID PASHTUN: He is pushing to remain in power beyond 2014.

CARBERRY: Khalid Pashtun(ph) is a parliamentarian from Karzai's home province of Kandahar.

PASHTUN: He wants to create some kind of a political chaos for the international community and pretend that the situation in Afghanistan is not capable for election.

CARBERRY: Pashtun says that Karzai's looking for a way to postpone the election by a couple of years or amend the constitution so he can run for a third term. Many Pashtuns, Afghanistan's majority ethnic group to which the president belongs, would like Karzai to stay in office, but that doesn't sit well with the political opposition or the international community.

VANDA FELBAB-BROWN: If the elections go badly, everything goes badly and sustaining Western engagement will be extraordinarily difficult.

CARBERRY: Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She says the international community is conditioning future aid to Afghanistan on the country holding legitimate elections. The hope is that billions of dollars of leverage will force everyone to behave. Nader Naderi, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, says that pressure from the international community did force Karzai to recently sign two election laws that contain provisions he opposed.

NADER NADERI: But now, well, we learned that the substance and the quality of implementation of those benchmarks are poor.

CARBERRY: For example, the election laws did mandate the continuation of the country's independent election commission, but Naderi says Karzai appointed commissioners who were close allies.

NADERI: That raises these issues about the performance of the institution as an independent, impartial entity on the poll day.

CARBERRY: But the overriding concern is still security. Taliban leader Mullah Omar says the elections are a U.S. plot and has called for a boycott. Naderi expects the Taliban will launch attacks to prevent voting and Vanda Felbab-Brown says that's most likely in the Pashtun-dominated south and east of the country.

FELBAB-BROWN: There are real fears among Pashtun groups that they will be disenfranchised.

CARBERRY: If Pashtuns or any other ethnic group are disproportionately prevented from voting, she says, it could undermine the legitimacy of the election and trigger a worst case scenario of ethnic violence. In the meantime, candidates for the presidency will begin registering in mid-September. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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