With luck, and courage, Afghans can turn a corner

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 October, 2004, 12:00am

The people of Afghanistan go to the polls today, and they do so in a climate of fear. But if the many problems threatening this historic election can be overcome, voters will set their troubled country on the road to recovery - and give it fresh hope.

This is the first direct presidential election in Afghanistan since the nation became independent 85 years ago. And it is taking place against overwhelming odds.

Forces loyal to the Taleban, the extremist Islamic regime ousted by US-led troops in 2001, are seeking to disrupt the polls through a combination of terror attacks and threats of violence. Twelve election workers have been killed and more than 30 wounded. There are fears that polling stations will come under attack.

Then there are the warlords who, with their private militia, have huge swathes of the country under their control. They have been seeking to intimidate voters in a bid to influence the result.

So the election will take place amid tight security. There is even a bunker below the stadium where votes will be counted, to act as a refuge in case it comes under attack.

Faced with all these problems, it is a wonder that anyone registered to vote. Yet 10.5 million people did so - almost 42 per cent of them women. This is extraordinary. It suggests that the long-suffering people of Afghanistan are keen to exercise their new-found democratic rights. But the high figure has also given rise to fears some voters have registered more than once at the behest of the warlords.

The turnout today will, therefore, be a huge test of the extent to which this country, so recently in the grip of the harsh Taleban regime, is willing to embrace democracy. If a high percentage of the electorate has the courage - and it will take real courage - to risk a trip to the polling station, it will be a powerful sign of progress.

Expectations, however, should not be too high. Trouble must be expected. The election campaign, despite sporadic violence, has gone reasonably smoothly. But the threat of terror is ever present.

Even if the turnout is high and the polls take place without serious interruptions, any victory for democracy will be limited. Even President Hamid Karzai, the hot favourite to win the election, assesses the election as likely to be only 'fairly free'.

Violence, intimidation and multiple registrations are not the only flaws. One complaint from Mr Karzai's opponents is that he has gained an unfair advantage from logistical support given to him by the United States during the election campaign.

But if the poll is generally smooth and the result credible, then a milestone will have been reached.

This will no doubt be music to the ears of US President George W. Bush as he fights his own election campaign. But the victory would not belong to him - it would lie with the Afghan people.