Where once Hamid Karzai was the face of national unity and optimism, today he symbolizes the loss of hope and momentum and is facing a stiff challenge from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Both camps have rushed to claim victory in last week's election. Preliminary results should be available on Sept. 2 and final results on the 17th.
The number of registered voters was up from 10 million to 17 million. The turnout is estimated to have been between 40 per cent and 50 per cent, down from 70 per cent 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. The election was a mitigated success.
Canada has no dog in the fight, although it does have a big stake in the outcome. Few Afghans expect the result to change the chaotic structure of government, the ramshackle delivery of services, the lack of public safety and human security, the pervasive corruption and Taliban militancy. The reality of a dysfunctional state will persist.
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 again on the march, 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 more than 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 3 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 has 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 antagonize Washington to the point where the Americans 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 to 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 United States, the country most able and willing to install representative democracy through forcible regime change, habitually supports a system that militates against the kind of power-sharing arrangements needed for post-conflict reconciliation. Parliamentary regimes 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 it. 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, uncorrupt 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.