Photo: Åse Johanne Roti Dahl

Despite an internationally conveyed image of uncertainty connected to the coming elections in Afghanistan, there is a strong sense of enthusiasm and optimism among many Afghans. Leading Afghan civil society actors hope that the enthusiasm will translate into high voter turn-out on election day.

The Afghan presidential elections are coming up. On 5 April, voters all over the country will cast their ballot, laying the foundations for the development in Afghanistan for the next five years. President Karzai is now in his second period and cannot be re-elected. What was originally 11 presidential candidates has been reduced to nine. Three of them has gained a status as fore-runners in Afghan media; Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rasool.

Although the Taliban recently pledged to make the election campaign to a period of intimidation and violence, the threats so far do not seem to keep Afghans away from the many rallies organized by the presidential candidates and their associates. Tens of thousands have turned up for rallies in Afghanistan's biggest cities. The walls and fences of Kabul are painted with the colours of the presidential candidates.

In a debate organized by CMI, PRIO and the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee during Afghanistan Week 2014, the panelists Shaharzad Akbar, co-founder of Qara consulting and member of Afghanistan 1400, Nader Nadery, director of the Afghan think tank Research and Evaluation Unit of Afghanistan, Scott Smith, director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia Program at the United States Institute of Peace, and Conrad Schetter, director for research at the Bonn International Centre for Conversion,  emphasized the unprecedented atmosphere of enthusiasm in the streets of Kabul.

-This time, it is not about faces. It is about what the candidates are saying, about their agendas. The candidates have discussed women's rights, and addressed Afghanistan's young population by elaborating on their strategies for education and employment, says Akbar.

The presidential elections started generating debate in Afghanistan more than a year ago, and has been a hot topic in Afghan news media. Hopes are high that the enthusiasm of the election campaign translates into a high voter turn-out on election day on 5 April. Akbar and Nadery stress that a high turn-out is crucial for the legitimacy of the new government.

In 2009, the voter turn-out was as low as 35 percent.

-2009 was undoubtedly a setback, but it is important to keep in mind that Afghanistan is a country in conflict. Indications of participation are more positive this time around. The crowds turning up at the candidates' rallies show an interest in the elections and a genuine willingness for the process to continue, says Nadery.

Despite the palpable enthusiasm, there are bumps in the road. Taliban's threat is one of them. Also, there are signs that the electoral bodies who are in charge of post-electoral management, like the election committee and the independent election committee, are not will equipped to deal with a large number of complains post -election. There is also a concern about vote rigging and stuffing of ballot boxes, as seen in previous elections.

Still, if voter turn-out is high and any post -election disturbances like accusations of fraud are handled in a way that consolidates the democratic process in Afghanistan, Akbar argues that the elections may also boost the country's relations to the international community.

-We have no other option than to be optimistic. For the past 12 years, a new generation has emerged in Afghanistan. The new generation of Afghans is more pragmatic and willing to work hard to cooperate internationally, says Akbar.

Further reading: (in Norwegian)