In Afghanistan, polling for presidential and provincial councils elections has been scheduled for August 20th. This will be the country's second democratic election ever since US-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001. The previous election was held on October 9, 2004. NATO officials announced that 15.6 million voters had registered, roughly half of the country's population. 35 to 38 percent of the registered voters are women.

The stakes in these elections are high. Building a new state is a complex and difficult task after 25 years of invasions, civil wars, oppression and terrorism, and it is not self-evident that the present government so far has done its best to move in the right direction. Now it is time for the Afghan authorities to bear the full responsibility for fulfilling their people's right to choose their leaders, with the international community assisting, but not leading.

A prerequisite for democratic elections is that voters must have a real choice and know what each candidate stands for. The different presidential candidates should explain how they intend to tackle the issues that interest the people. Beginning with security: how does the next president intend to proceed to build up a strong army and police force? How does he promote development while preserving accountability? How will young people be educated and trained to develop the human resources that Afghanistan badly needs? Will there be a plan to reintegrate into the Afghan society those elements that have chosen to renounce the armed struggle? Will there be a decentralization process by which the provincial councils can give voice to the people at grassroots level? In Afghanistan, eliminating corruption, promoting a working democracy and providing effective aid is as critical as scoring military success against insurgents and terrorists. On August 20th Afghans will travel long distances and even risk their lives to go to the polling stations. It is their right to know, in the remaining couple of weeks before the polls, what program each candidate has. Is this too much to ask?

The present election campaign is taking place against the backdrop of increased violence, in spite of the deployment of thousands of US additional troops. For their part, the Taliban have already issued a call to boycott the elections. In fact, the security situation is so precarious that it might force 600 polling stations (about 10% of the total) to remain closed. The Taliban have also expanded their activities to the North and to the West of the country, areas so far relatively less exposed to attacks, to make clear that no area in Afghanistan is safe.

Concerning the situation on the ground, the increased number of American and allies casualties was somehow anticipated by the increased level of confrontation with the enemy. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, US top commander in Afghanistan, had to correct The Wall Street Journal that, after an interview with him had come out with a big headline: “Taliban Now Winning”. McChrystal's spokesman categorically denied that the General ever said such a thing even though he admitted that the Western coalition is confronted by an aggressive enemy that is launching complex attacks such as combined roadside bombs with ambushes by small teams of heavily armed militants. However, the spokesman insisted that “the Taliban are not winning”.

General McChrystal is expected to ask Washington for a further 10,000 troops to join US and allied forces in Afghanistan. It is also possible that Washington might request more troop involvement from other nations.

On the election front, people seem to be disillusioned by the electoral process. In a recent interview to the NY Times, Abdul Hadi, the election commissioner in the embattled Helmand Province was clear about his low expectations. ‘The people are not that interested in the elections,’’ he said, adding “They voted before and they did not see any result… They don’t want to put their lives in jeopardy for one vote.”

The Karzai government is not very popular due to promises it did not fulfil and the degree of corruption that characterises it. Still, Hamid Karzai remains the favourite candidate. His only other serious competition comes from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullahand and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, but most Afghans remain convinced that the winner of the election will be chosen by foreign powers.

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