Almost three weeks ago, Afghanistan was witness to historic presidential elections with around 60 per cent turnout, much higher than expected, in spite of constant security threats from the insurgents. A high level of enthusiasm among Afghan voters reflects the desire for change and hope for a better future. There is still a long way to go before the next president takes office. As per preliminary results (announced on April 26), Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Gani have emerged as the two top candidates with the former in the lead. As anticipated, none managed to gain the requisite 50 per cent-plus one to win the race. All the remaining six presidential hopefuls are virtually out of the race. The Independent Afghanistan Election Commission (AEC) will announce final results on May 14. However, all indications are that the two leading candidates will have to face a run-off as none may be able to reach the required target of 50 per cent-plus one even when both AEC and the Complaints Commission (CC) complete their assessment of the preliminary results.

We are yet to know who the winner of the 2014 election will be. One winner of this election stands out though and it is none other than the entire Afghan nation that went to polls with courage, dignity and an enduring faith in democracy. No incidents among supporters of rival candidates were reported on election day, exhibiting a gradually maturing democratic culture in a country ravaged by decades of civil war, conflict and political instability. One could say with full confidence that Afghans have set a good precedent of being a responsible nation by rising to the occasion. Afghanistan’s national security forces also did a brilliant job by taking necessary measures that ensured a relatively peaceful election. Live TV debates, huge election rallies, city walls full of posters and banners in every corner, together with an extensive coverage of TV campaign commercials kept this election season quite exciting with a sense of optimism and hope.

The Complaints Commission, in coordination with the AEC, will undertake an assessment of the complaints from all contenders regarding accusations of vote frauds by rival candidates in different parts of the country. The final results will officially declare if there has to be a run-off, which seems like a certainty. Reactions to the announcement of preliminary results have come from both leading candidates. While Gani seems to be more convinced about the integrity of the results and happy to face his rival in the second round, Abdullah is bent upon his claim of victory in the first round, while still looking forward to final results.

It is important to note why Abdullah may not be happy about going into the second round. The dynamics of Afghan politics are such that a run-off election may go more in favour of Gani than Abdullah. The candidates who finished second, third and fourth in the race are more likely to make alliances with Gani than Abdullah. Most of the votes for these drop-out candidates have come from provinces that are more inclined to vote for Gani than the latter. Therefore, these potential alliances will be critical in deciding the result of the election.

Unlike the previous two elections of 2004 and 2009, when Karzai, himself a sitting president, had a clear edge over his rivals because of having control over the entire state machinery and had managed to form winning coalitions, this election is about transfer of power from Karzai to a new-comer. This election is also challenging because of the fragile nature of Afghan politics that has been polarised along ethnic and linguistic lines. Abdullah and his supporters have indicated threats of resorting to uprising in case of defeat. One of Abdullah’s official spokespersons went too far in a debate, anticipating bloodshed if Abdullah loses. Such revelations show the challenge and complexity of the upcoming power transfer.

Abdullah has had a long-term political career. He belongs to Jamiat-e-Islami, a mainly Tajik-based Islamist party that was involved in Jihad against the Communists and later on the Taliban regime. His long association with Northern Alliance makes him a not-so-popular figure among the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country. Dr Gani, on the other hand, comes from the Ahmadzai tribe of Pashtuns. His technocrat background coupled with his international credentials gives him the advantage of being a neutral figure in Afghan politics.

Not being a stable democracy with well-established institutions, Karzai and his team have a historic responsibility on their shoulders to make this transition a success. As the run-off seems to be certain for all practical purposes, the government has to make necessary preparations in terms of logistics, finances and security. The entire civilised world has been watching the Afghan election with both caution and optimism. All stakeholders in this historic democratic process including the candidates, the incumbent government and, last but not the least, the Afghan people must rise to the occasion by supporting this first-ever peaceful transfer of power.

Ajmal Shams is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party, better known as Afghan Millat National Progressive Party, and is based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He served as Policy Advisor to Presidential candidate Dr Ashraf Gani when he chaired the security transition commission. He mainly writes on political and developmental issues.