Preliminary results should be available by September 3, with final results to be announced on the 17th. Few expect the outcome to change the chaotic structure of government, the ramshackle delivery of services, lack of public safety and human security, the pervasive corruption of officials and security personnel, and the resurgence of Taliban militancy. The reality of a dysfunctional state will persist.
The turnout is estimated to be between 40-50 per cent of the 17 million registered voters, down from 70 per cent of ten million in 2004. Disenchantment, intimidation and attacks suppressed but did not abort voting. International forces deserve credit for having provided adequate security reassurance to enable millions to vote.
Karzai's record is one of disappointment in extending the writ of the state, softening internal ethnic tensions, building durable political institutions, achieving measurable economic development, and lately even protecting basic women's rights. Despite a few bright spots like representation in parliament, their situation remains dire. The two mainstays of the economy are opium production and foreign aid. Lawlessness is rampant, with people's safety triangulated by corrupt police, insurgents on the march again, and foreign forces either invading their homes at night or firing missiles from drones by day.
Patronage politics is as entrenched as ever. Karzai won over 55 per cent of the votes cast in 2004. If forced into a runoff election by failing to win 50 per cent in the first round, he may suffer some loss of face and humiliation and make yet more dubious promises to unsavoury allies. Or it could serve as a wake-up call while underlining the credibility of the electoral process and thereby enhance the legitimacy of the victor. Conversely, if most people believe that the election was stolen, victory could prove pyrrhic as in Iran and the prelude to even worse volatility. Allegations abound of serious fraud, including up to three million phantom voters, enough to sway the results. Faced with the threat of physical violence for casting one's vote and the inducement of cash for selling it, what is the rational and sensible choice? In districts under most Taliban influence, female enrolment has been twice as high as male; this is suspicious, not reassuring. Reportedly, there is even one ''Britney Jamilia Spears'' on the roll in Kandahar.
The appropriate balance is yet to be struck between Western conceptions of democracy, human rights and good governance, and the local reality. Karzai's sins are no worse than the West privileging the safety of its troops over that of Afghan civilians: democracy-by-drones is not persuasive. Karzai cannot antagonise Washington to the point where they depose him, yet he will lose legitimacy and credibility with critical domestic constituencies if he is a mere yes man to foreigners.
The West is trapped in its shifting rhetoric of justification for fighting in Afghanistan. Although this was a war of necessity in 2001, it has changed to become one of choice by now, in that the West's vital interests can be secured by other means. The security justification was to punish the Taliban regime for hosting the masterminds of 9/11 and stop al Qaeda from establishing a secure base for mega-terrorist attacks in the future. The nation-building arguments are to establish democracy and the rule of law, promote human and women's rights, and eradicate extreme poverty and radicalism.
The liberal peace paradigm can collide with enduring local realities and with its own internal contradictions. Even in the West, financial and media muscle can trump citizen preferences. In a country like Afghanistan, to win and survive, all presidential candidates must cut deals with warlords, abusive military commanders, drug kingpins and misogynist mullahs.
Moreover, by placing a premium on tribal mobilization, elections can harden sectarian cleavages and promote ethnic strife. This is particularly the case with the winner-take-all outcome of presidential governments. The country most able and willing to install representative democracy through forcible regime change habitually supports a system that militates against power-sharing arrangements needed for post-conflict reconciliation.
Cabinet government produces policy drift and incoherence; a presidential government, proponents believe, would help to restore order to a troubled country, dilute the corruption of the political system and accelerate the pace of the country's development. The president, being independent of the legislature, can be more single-minded in the pursuit of the national interest free of the debilitating distractions of vested interests.
Such a picture of the US president is too idealised. The chief goal of the framers of the American constitution was not to create expansive and powerful government, but to limit it. Worries about paralysis of government were subordinate to fears of tyrannical government.
In fact the US fractures the powers of government among the three branches of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. A decisive and politically skilled head of government has less checks on authority in a parliamentary than a presidential system: think of Indira Gandhi in India, Tony Blair in England and John Howard in Australia. Cabinet governments are also more likely to have legislative majorities to implement policy programs.
In presidential systems, the president and the legislature can both invoke the mantle of democratic legitimacy. In the event of a clash between them, there is no democratic means of resolving differences of policy. This can be especially acute if the legislature is controlled by a different party. The president is tempted to confuse executive-legislative clashes as a battle between the national interest of the president and the narrower interests of opposition legislators.
A president can be removed from office only by the uncertain, drastic and divisive process of impeachment. Parliamentary systems confer greater flexibility through the simpler expedient of votes of confidence on the floor of the house: Governments can be formed and re-formed to reflect changing political realities or alignments. Such flexibility prevents the crisis of a particular government being converted into a crisis of regime.
Parliamentary regimes have built-in mechanisms for power-sharing in societies with deep social and political cleavages. They place a higher premium on the political skills of bargaining and consensus building. Coalition governments can offer effective and continuous representation to a variety of interests that are shut out of a presidential administration
Barred by the constitution from running again, a victorious Karzai could look to his legacy and govern accordingly. In the first term, his main challenge was to embrace but not be suffocated by Washington.
In a second term, his chief challenge will be to distance himself from the West without being overthrown by them. To survive as president, Karzai has forged alliances with strongmen who can deliver votes. To succeed as president, he will need to cultivate competent administrators as cabinet ministers and capable, incorrupt leaders as district and regional chiefs. To be remembered as president, he will need to deliver on development and security. Afghanistan needs this triumph of hope over experience.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.