KABUL — It may be over a year away, but Afghanistan’s presidential election is fast becoming a lightning rod for the nation’s highest hopes and darkest fears, including predictions of conflict and collapse.
Everyone here agrees that a credible electoral process and a peaceful transfer of power will be crucial to the government’s survival in an era of vastly reduced foreign aid and protection. The election has been scheduled for April 2014, amid the final pullout of American combat troops and a possible spring offensive by the Taliban.
With so much at stake, there are some signs that Afghanistan’s notoriously fractured and self-interested political class could rise to the occasion. Longtime rivals are holding meetings, and there is much talk about putting aside personal ambition for the sake of the nation.
President Hamid Karzai, whose reelection in 2009 was tainted by fraud allegations and whose opponents suspect he seeks to extend his rule through political surrogates, has vowed to step down as required by law. He has taken a series of steps to reassure domestic and foreign critics that he is committed to a fair and free election process.
‘‘A year ago, people didn’t believe he would leave. They said he would suspend or change the constitution, that he wouldn’t announce a date, that the government would drag its feet,’’ said Jawed Ludin, the deputy foreign minister and a government spokesman. ‘‘But so far, everything he has said and done has proven the critics wrong.’’
Ludin described the 2014 election as a do-or-die test for Afghanistan’s future stability and security, as well as for its relations with the United States and the world. The quality of the election and transfer of power, he and others said, will matter far more than who occupies the presidency after Western forces leave.
‘‘If we fail, the world will turn its back on us, or we could be overrun by the Taliban,’’ he said. ‘‘But if we get the election right, it will inoculate us against both threats. The United States won’t abandon a legitimate new democratic government, and the Taliban won’t be able to topple it.’’
A lot can go wrong between now and the spring of 2014, however, and many Afghans fear the election will be sabotaged by a familiar combination of factors that marred the 2009 vote, including terrorist threats and logistical problems.
Critics have questioned whether voter registration and candidates’ campaigns can be conducted over the winter, and whether Afghan forces alone can protect the polls from insurgent attacks. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s top rival in 2009, recently called for the election to be postponed, saying it would not be possible to prepare voters in remote and snowy regions.
There are also politically tinged procedural disputes, especially a battle over whether to include foreign experts in the panel that will judge complaints of electoral fraud.
If the election is to succeed, observers say, Afghanistan’s power elite will have to eschew their longtime habit of backroom calculations and deals, and allow the process to unfold as a meaningful popular contest.