Democracy Comes to Kabul

Afghanistan After the Vote

On April 5, seven million Afghans -- over half of those eligible to vote -- stood in long lines in the city rain, in the deserts, and in mountain villages to vote for a new president. It was remarkable. Some polling sites ran out of ballots, others remained open well past the official 5 pm closing time. There is no electricity in most villages, and staying out after dark can be dangerous. According to General Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, the Taliban launched 690 attacks on the day of the vote, killing some. But the voting went on. The results won’t be revealed until April 24, after which voters can officially register complaints. A second round of voting, if necessary (and according to the ten percent of the votes that have been counted, it may be), will take place in late May.

Although the identity of the next president is uncertain, Afghans know for sure that it will not be Hamid Karzai, who has held power for 12 years. In keeping with his country’s 2004 constitution, he agreed to step down after his second term was up. That has never happened before in Afghanistan, and it marks the true introduction of democracy in this shattered land.

The first of three leading candidates is Zalmai Rassoul, an elegant French-trained doctor who is now Karzai’s foreign minister and whom Karzai apparently supports. Perhaps reaching out to younger and urban voters -- as well as women voters, who make up 35 percent of the electorate -- Rassoul picked a woman, Habiba Sorobi, a Hazara and the former governor of Bamian Province, as one of his two running mates. Throughout the campaign, he has called for closer ties to the West, economic development, and security.

More important than Rassoul’s accomplishments, though, is his lineage. Rassoul is the nephew of King Amanullah Khan, who was revered for freeing Afghanistan from the British in 1919 -- an important legacy in a country where, after over 30 years of war, many yearn for the return of a strong but distant monarch and for a more peaceful time. For his part, Khan tried to modernize Afghanistan, but he pressed too hard and angered conservative tribal leaders, who were horrified that Queen Soraya showed her face in public and wore sleeveless Western dresses. Khan had to flee Afghanistan in 1929 and died in exile in Zurich in 1960.

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