KABUL, Afghanistan – Fear has melted Kabul’s famously dense traffic jams a day before the country embarks on its first democratic transition of power.
The four-lane Sevom Aqrab Road in front of Kabul University is practically empty and classes have been canceled. All roads to the capital were closed in the lead-up to Saturday, when Afghans choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled the country since 2001 and is constitutionally barred from running again.
The security lockdown comes after a series of strikes in the heart of the country’s fragile government. In the last week, suicide bombers targeted the country’s Ministry of Interior and gunmen launched deadly assaults on the country’s election commission.
"The Taliban spread fear because they don’t want people to vote."
An Afghan police officer also shot two award-winning Associated Press journalists in eastern Afghanistan on Friday, killing one and wounding the other.
“The Taliban spread fear because they don’t want people to vote,” said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst.
Stubborn commitment to democracy
A successful election would prove to be a huge propaganda loss for the Taliban, which was toppled after it sheltered Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Since then, the U.S. has spent over $100 billion in reconstruction funds and nearly 3,500 coalition troops have been killed. Tens of thousands of Afghans also lost their lives during the same period.
The Karzai government has tried to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban, although the process has stalled and the militants have vowed to derail the elections.
But in some parts of the country voters have stubbornly refused to give up on democracy, and put themselves in harm’s way by standing in long lines to get voter registration cards despite the uptick in attacks.
According to the election commission, 3.8 million voter cards have been distributed for this election, bringing the total number of registered voters to over 20 million out of a population of some 32 million.
Voters defying insurgent threats -- and inclement weather that is expected over the weekend -- will choose from eight candidates. The printed ballots will actually show 11 candidates, but votes for the three withdrawn candidates will be disqualified.
Most experts agree that there are three front-runners, all of whom said in a nationally televised debate that they would support an agreement allowing the presence of U.S. troops beyond the end of this year. Karzai has not signed the pact -- the Bilateral Security Agreement -- which has worsened already strained Afghan-U.S. relations.
While Karzai has not publicly said whom he supports, former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul has been tipped as his favorite. Significantly, the president’s brother, Qayum Karzai, came out in support of Rassoul after dropping out of the race in March.
Another former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in the last elections in 2009, is back on the ballot.
Abdullah told NBC News’s Richard Engel that the election highlights Afghanistan’s difficulties, but remains optimistic.
“Afghanistan will have the same challenges as the past 13 years. But there is an opportunity to get things right, domestically, as well as far as relations of Afghanistan with the outside world are concerned,” he said.
Former finance minister Ashraf Ghani is another frontrunner, although he has been criticized for his choice of vice-presidential candidate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord implicated in the mass killing of Taliban fighters in 2001.
Other candidates, such as former warlord Gul Agha Sherzai and Mohammed Daud Sultanzoi, a former parliament member and host of a television show, are not thought to be serious contenders.
It could be weeks before the winner is known, which will likely add uncertainty to an already unstable situation around the country.
Counting the ballots will take time, especially in the rural areas, and no candidate is expected to win a clear majority of the votes. The election commission is already making plans to hold a run-off election on May 28.
“The likelihood of a run-off is very high,” said Mir, the political analyst. “Abdullah will probably compete with one of the other two front-runners.”
Biggest impact may come from non-voters: Taliban
Given all the uncertainty, independent experts are cautious about calling a potential winner. While many Afghans still vote along ethnic lines -- the main groups in Afghanistan are Pashtun, Tajik and Hazara -- the behavior of the generation educated after the fall of the Taliban is unpredictable, experts say.
"These are young people with access to social and international media,” Mir said, adding that recently young voters have become more independent and critical of those in power.
But in the end, it is the group not participating in the election that will most likely have the biggest impact on it, Mir said.
“The turnout will depend on if Taliban will be able to attack elections booths in the early morning,” he said.