"Yes, I will vote. I want a leader of my choice," said the 35-year-old, primary-schooled woman in a village 200 miles north of Kabul. Her words sum up the views of most Afghans surveyed in post-Taliban Afghanistan's first national political opinion poll.
Our survey showed that nearly three years after U.S. troops launched the war on terrorism in Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, Afghans want democracy. They are looking forward to their first free presidential election, scheduled for October, and say they will vote in large numbers. They are also surprisingly supportive of democratic values such as equal rights and peaceful opposition. Though big problems -- public ignorance, administrative and partisan difficulties, and insecurity -- must be faced if the elections are to succeed, the research indicates democracy's chances in Afghanistan may be better than widely thought.
In the study, which involved 804 interviews with a representative, random sample of men and women in urban and rural areas in 29 of the country's 32 provinces, Afghans' interest in the election was palpable. Almost everyone knew it was coming, and 81 percent intended to vote. (This included large majorities of both sexes in every region, though some women feared their husbands might not let them vote.) Their eagerness to participate was confirmed by the rapid progress of voter registration since May, when it began in the rural areas (home to four-fifths of the population). In three months, registration soared from 1.5 million to 8 million of the estimated 9.5 million eligible voters. It continues at a pace of up to 125,000 per day, despite Taliban remnants opposed to the vote who threaten and even kill registrants.
A major reason for Afghans' determination to vote is the rebirth of hope in their country since the fall of the Taliban. They know too well its problems with security, warlords and women's rights. But two out of three think Afghanistan is headed in the right direction, citing the progress toward peace, reconstruction and normality in most of the country. Interim president (and presidential candidate) Hamid Karzai has a 62 percent job approval rating and is praised for hard work and efforts to bring peace. Karzai's personal favorability is even higher -- 85 percent -- and runs across regional and ethnic lines.
Moreover, Afghans have placed great faith in democratic elections: Fully 77 percent say the election of a president and parliament will make a difference. In a country that has never known elected leaders, they voice intense hopes that rulers accountable to the people will be able to fulfill their aspirations.
Almost two-thirds of Afghans have gained some idea of the meaning of democracy; most mention freedom or rights. A solid consensus (more than 80 percent) supports equal rights under law -- regardless of religion, tribe or gender -- and the right to peaceably oppose government. Two in three now favor separating religious and political leadership, while less than 10 percent think democracy and Islam are incompatible.
Still, Afghans have never participated in a democratic system. They are unfamiliar with voting procedures -- most don't know balloting will be secret -- and fear political parties they oppose. Thus voter education programs, joining foreign groups such as the Asia Foundation and Swisspeace with a host of local nongovernmental groups, have their work cut out for them. Countrywide, they are holding meetings, sponsoring theatrical troupes, and giving tape cassettes to housewives and taxi drivers to teach citizens about the elections.
Besides voter education, a successful election requires legal preparation and better security. Parliamentary elections have already been postponed till spring by delays in framing rules and naming candidates. Some have suggested the presidential vote should also be delayed, but the Afghan and U.S. governments are determined to stay on schedule.
Holding the presidential election alone poses huge challenges, including establishing thousands of polling sites and securing them. NATO is modestly increasing its security force from 6,500 to 10,000. Without more troops, most voters' security against Taliban mischief will depend on their courage -- and luck.
It's hard to name any other country that has successively experienced monarchy, dictatorship, communism, anarchy, warlordism and Islamic fundamentalism. Afghans might well testify to the truth of Winston Churchill's famous aphorism that "democracy is the worst system of government -- except for all the rest." In Afghanistan, they have tried them all.
The writer is president of Charney Research, a New York polling firm, which conducted a voter education planning survey in Afghanistan for the Asia Foundation. The opinions here are his own. He will answer questions about Afghan democracy today at 2 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com.