Afghan women queue for voting education during the 2009 presidential election. The Independent Election Commission had held a 4-day training program for Afghans, teaching them how to vote. (Hamed Zalmy/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

It may be over a year away, but Afghanistan’s presidential election is fast becoming a lightning rod for the nation’s highest hopes and darkest fears, including predictions of conflict and collapse.

Everyone here agrees that a credible electoral process and a peaceful transfer of power will be crucial to the government’s survival in an era of vastly reduced foreign aid and protection. The election has been scheduled for April 2014, amid the final pullout of U.S. combat troops and a possible spring offensive by Taliban insurgents.

With so much at stake, there are some signs that Afghanistan’s notoriously fractured and self-interested political class could rise to the occasion. Longtime rivals are holding meetings, and there is much talk about putting aside personal ambition for the sake of the nation.

President Hamid Karzai, whose 2009 reelection was tainted by fraud allegations and who is suspected by opponents of seeking to extend his rule through political surrogates, has vowed to step down as required by law. He has recently taken a series of steps to reassure domestic and foreign critics that he is committed to a fair and free election process.

“A year ago, people didn’t believe he would leave. They said he would suspend or change the constitution, that he wouldn’t announce a date, that the government would drag its feet,” said Jawed Ludin, the deputy foreign minister and a government spokesman. “But so far, everything he has said and done has proven the critics wrong.”

Ludin described the 2014 election as a do-or-die test for Afghanistan’s future stability and security, as well as for its relations with the United States and the world. The quality of the election and transfer of power, he and others said, will matter far more than who occupies the presidency after Western forces leave.

“If we fail, the world will turn its back on us, or we could be overrun by the Taliban,” he said. “But if we get the election right, it will inoculate us against both threats. The United States won’t abandon a legitimate new democratic government, and the Taliban won’t be able to topple it.”

But a lot can go wrong between now and the spring of 2014, and many Afghans fear the election will be sabotaged by a familiar combination of factors that marred the 2009 vote, including terrorist threats, logistical problems, political manipulation, opposition disarray and dynastic presidential ambitions.

Critics have questioned whether voter registration and candidates’ campaigns can be conducted over the winter and whether Afghan forces alone can protect the polls from insurgent attacks. Last week, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s top rival in 2009, called for the election to be postponed, saying it would not be possible to prepare voters in remote and snowy regions.

There are also politically tinged procedural disputes, especially a battle over whether to include foreign experts in the panel that will judge complaints of electoral fraud. Karzai has called the idea an insult to national sovereignty; foreign diplomats and some members of parliament call it a needed guarantee of credibility.

If the election is to succeed, observers say, Afghanistan’s power elite — Karzai and his coterie on one side; a hodge­podge of opponents on the other — will have to eschew their longtime habit of backroom calculations and deals, and allow the process to unfold as a meaningful popular contest.

“People want real change, not another engineered election or a democratic dictatorship,” said Fawzia Koofi, a liberal member of parliament from Badakhshan province. “This is not the same Afghanistan that existed when the Taliban came in 1996. We have Facebook and free speech now. They can’t beat people on the streets. But the election can still be stopped by a lack of political will.”

Much of the worry centers on Karzai, 54, who has held on to power through a series of traditional councils and elections since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001. Although he cannot run again, he will have a major influence on the election, and there have been widespread reports that he intends to back a relative or aide as his successor.

Karzai has not publicly indicated who he would favor, but two names often mentioned are his brother Qayum, 56, a former Afghan legislator who owns a restaurant in Baltimore and a home in Potomac, and Mohammad Daudzai, 55, the president’s former chief of staff, who sparked controversy as the reported conduit of cash to Karzai from the government of Iran.

One key to a credible vote will be the actions of the Independent Elections Commission, which critics say was manipulated and pressured by the government in 2009. International experts are closely watching its chairman, Karzai-appointee Mohammed Fazel Ahmad Manavi, to see whether his current term is extended to 2014.

Among opposition leaders — a sprawling cast of characters that includes ethnic warlords, Westernized technocrats, tribal chiefs and former members of Karzai’s cabinet — the major challenge will be whether they can rise above old rivalries and forge practical agreements.

Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a former interior minister under Karzai who is a leading opposition figure, is trying to create a unified front. He said he is optimistic that even the most truculent strongmen and ambitious politicians will recognize it is in their larger interests to work for a smooth election, rather than wheeling and dealing to the bitter end.

“The Titanic has been hit, and there is no point in fighting over who gets the chairs, because we will all go down together,” said Atmar, who heads a new group called the Rights and Justice Party. He ran through a list of powerful Afghan bosses and noted that “if this election fails, none of them will be able to stay in Afghanistan, even with all their weapons and money.”

Although American military forces will soon be gone, Atmar said that vital U.S. security interests will still be at stake and that a smaller U.S. force must remain behind to support Afghan security forces. He also said U.S. influence can go a long way to foster opposition support for the election. “President Obama needs to start engaging other Afghan leaders now,” he said. “Afghanistan is not President Karzai.”

A final wild card is whether members of the Taliban and the followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar will accept the government’s invitation to participate in the polls. Most observers said it was highly unlikely, but Ludin said he hoped some might run for provincial council seats.

“We need to use this election as a first opportunity for the Taliban to transition from a military entity to a political one,” he said. “If the Taliban are not engaged in a political conversation by then, to have any election in such an environment would be a huge challenge.”