Most politicians’ homes I have visited here are heavy on fake gilt and rococo furniture, but Ashraf Ghani, one of the leading candidates in Saturday’s presidential election, is known as a technocrat and a sophisticate. “It’s a beautiful house,” I said, looking around at the exquisite Nuristani carved chests and Persian miniature paintings that decorated his living room. “It is,” replied Naseem Sharifi, one of Mr. Ghani’s campaign managers, beaming. Then he frowned. “The other day, they collected three or four kilos of human flesh off the roof.”
Mr. Ghani’s house is next door to a branch office belonging to the election commission, which was assailed by suicide bombers last week, one of many Taliban attacks in the capital recently. Like the other seven candidates, Mr. Ghani has been conducting a campaign in the midst of war, a fraught exercise that has come to typify the country’s struggling democracy.
This will be Afghanistan’s fifth election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the third for the presidency. Hamid Karzai, who has led the country since then, won’t be running this time; he has reached the constitutional two-term limit. His departure, combined with that of international combat forces at the end of the year, means that the stakes of the upcoming transfer of power are extraordinarily high.
If you believe the candidates’ rhetoric, this is a momentous occasion for political change and democratic renewal. But it is hard to imagine that this election will be any less marred by controversy and fraud than previous ones. With a clear winner unlikely to emerge on Saturday, a protracted vote count and runoff election seem all but certain. And the peculiar alliances formed during the campaign have already exposed how Afghanistan’s deeply flawed political system has undermined democracy by encouraging elites to bargain for power at the expense of public accountability.
Mr. Ghani arrived, and the entourage of us journalists and aides who had been waiting to accompany him to a rally in the city center piled into the armored SUVs parked outside. A motley array of gunmen surrounded the vehicles — not only guards from the police and intelligence services, but also tough-looking Kandaharis from the south with tricked-out M4 rifles and platoons of camo-clad Uzbeks sent by Mr. Ghani’s running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the controversial strongman from the north.
We sped off to the rally. It was held in Ghazi Stadium, where every event invites comparisons by Western journalists to the public executions the Taliban once held here. In a voice hoarse from campaigning, Mr. Ghani spoke to the crowd about politics, religion, ethnic harmony and social welfare, promising a brighter future and a new style of governance. The stadium was only half-full, but the attendees, mostly young men, were excited.
Polls show that Mr. Ghani is one of the three most popular candidates, along with Abdullah Abdullah, a northerner who placed second in 2009, and Zalmay Rassoul, an unassuming bureaucrat widely considered to be Mr. Karzai’s favorite. All three regularly draw crowds of tens of thousands of people — whether attracted by the politics or the prospect of a free meal. In Kabul and other cities, a messy democratic process, skewed by violence and corruption, and fed as much by cynicism as enthusiasm, is underway.
But this belies the reality of life in the war-torn countryside, where neither democracy nor development has found much success. Across the city from Ghazi Stadium, I visited the refugee camp at Charahi Qambar. Here, several thousand people live under mud huts and tarps on a plateau of packed mud crossed by refuse-clogged rivulets, almost all of them internally displaced refugees fleeing violence in the south. The camp has been in place for years, with Kabul expanding around it.
There was little enthusiasm for the election there. I asked a group of men at the camp’s mosque if they planned to vote. “What difference does it make?” Mohammed Fatih, a refugee from Helmand, replied. “We voted in 2004 and 2009, and we’re worse off than ever. Politics is for the rich and important people, not the landless and unfortunate.” The others nodded in agreement.
These men are representatives of the vast swaths of Afghanistan that have hardly benefited from the international intervention and the new democratic order it established. The rural-urban divide is stark: While the cities are vibrant, there is a full-blown and worsening humanitarian crisis in many conflict-affected areas. The United Nations reports, for example, that cases of severe malnutrition among children have increased by 50 percent since 2012. The number of internally displaced Afghans has been rising as well.
This gap between urban democracy and rural misery is the product not only of the country’s conflict with the Taliban but also of a political system that disenfranchises its constituents. Given that in 2001 development experts treated Afghanistan as a tabula rasa, it is perverse just how much the system they put in place now contributes to, rather than alleviates, the country’s difficulties.
Afghanistan has a winner-take-all system, where the president appoints all positions in government, down to the district level. His office is barely checked by the judiciary or Parliament, both of which are weak on paper and weaker in practice. But then the all-powerful executive is itself a fiction. Given how fragmented the country is, and how feeble its institutions are, the president must co-opt local powerbrokers, in an informal and corrupt process of favor-swapping that takes place behind the scenes.
Much of Mr. Karzai’s most frustrating behavior — his propensity to divide-and-rule, his tolerance of corrupt allies, his strategically erratic behavior — can be understood as a response to the demands this system places on its nominal leader. It is a system that will remain unchanged by this latest election: Even an educated technocrat like Mr. Ghani was compelled to partner with a man like Mr. Dostum, whom he himself once called, well before this race, a “known killer.”
International donors have spent around $1 billion on elections and related development projects here since 2001, and the current round will cost another $126 million, according to Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, the chief electoral officer. Despite the expense, the fundamental flaws that make fraud easy have not been fixed. Most glaringly, there is the lack of a proper census and voter rolls, meaning that there is no way of matching voters against a database. Some 21 million voter ID cards have been issued, even though there are only 12 million eligible voters. If Afghanistan’s next president wishes to be seen as legitimate by his people, he will have to do more than simply win.
Matthieu Aikins is a magazine writer living in Kabul.