Afghans will head to the polls on Saturday to elect a successor to long-serving President Hamid Karzai.
If all goes as planned, the election will mark the first time power has been democratically transferred in the troubled Central Asian nation of 30 million inhabitants. Karzai was selected by leading Afghan anti-Taliban political figures to lead the nation in 2001 and was subsequently elected president in 2004 and again in 2009.
Reuters reports the Taliban have launched a series of deadly attacks in a bid to deter Afghans from voting. Taliban leaders claim the election is a U.S.-backed sham.
Many Afghans were determined to cast their votes.
“I am here to vote and I am not afraid of any attacks,” Kabul resident Haji Ramazan told Reuters as he waited in a long line at a polling station as a chilly rain fell. “This is my right and no one can stop me.”
The leading candidates in the election are former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, and foreign finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Abdullah was Karzai’s main opponent in the last presidential election in 2009.
The most pressing issue facing Afghan voters involves the final status of a security agreement with the United States, which is scheduled to withdraw its remaining 34,000 combat troops by the end of the year. Other important issues, like how to deal with the Taliban to fighting the illicit drug trade and endemic corruption, are closely connected to the security agreement.
Karzai urged Afghans to vote in a televised address aired on Thursday.
“The significant participation of our people in this election will be the biggest guarantee of the continuation of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” said Karzai. “A strong participation will be the greatest response to those who believe violence and destruction will act as a deterrent against our people.”
There were also serious concerns about electoral fraud of the sort that marred the 2009 campaign and every other post-Taliban Afghan election. Abdullah has raised the alarm about what he calls “industrial-scale fraud.”
But U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham dismissed these worries.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly helpful line of argument to set the assumption that [fraud] is going to happen,” Cunningham told the Guardian.
Other observers voiced concerns that Karzai’s powerful patronage system could corrupt the outcome of the election.
“The commission is appointed by Karzai, so not only is he appointing the Independent Election Commission that runs the elections, and therefore is responsible to him, he is appointing the people who will determine if there’s any irregularities, and as a result it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the electoral system,” Peter Galbraith, the former United Nations deputy special representative for Afghanistan, told Voice of America.