In Afghanistan, the election's legitimacy matters. But Western brains, in figuring out how to judge the election, should first decide whether, by Western standards, it's worth making a judgment. Dozens of our country's best analysts are in the country, watching. Others are following a well-developed Twitter stream. By Western standards, the election was a shanda: tens of thousands were denied the vote in Taliban controlled provinces, suicide bombers clashed with police officers on the streets of Kabul, police officers were killed by explosions in at least two cities, precincts were shut down for hours in many places, voters literally had to find their way through minefields to vote in Helmand, a Western group called the entire thing a fraud, etc. etc. etc.
If Western perception influences Afghan perception, it'll be a disaster for whoever wins. What standard Afghans use to deem the election as legitimate -- that's another story. In the United States, sporadic reports of irregularities mark a successful election experience. In Afghanistan, so long as the violence remains sporadic, so long as the lines of women at polling places are long (even though they vote in a different area than men), so long as the election authority pronounces relative calm and quiet, so long as sustained violence appears limited to a few places in Northern Afghanistan -- it seems as if, by the standards of an election in a war zone, it went as well as an Afghan might expect.
At the same time, we shouldn't romanticize the election, either. It'll be tempting -- purple thumbs, women casting ballots, citizens braving fears of attacks. But in this case, it's really probably best to wait and see whether there was evidence of widespread fraud when the results are released tomorrow, and if so, how Afghans react to it. (What does widespread fraud mean in that country versus this one? I don't know.)
Who's going to win? There seems to be an expectation that President Karzai will face Dr. Abudallah Abdullah in a run-off on October 1. The former foreign minister, Abdullah is one of 39 presidential candidates. Best known to the world as the man who brought the U.S. government and the Northern Alliance together after 9/11, Abdullah is an ophthalmologist by training and diplomat by trade. After Karzai, Abdullah's main rival is Ashraf Ghani, a well-regarded former government finance minister whose accomplishments have tangibly helped Afghanistan grow.
Abdullah's campaign website speaks of hope and change -- universal themes, of course, but associated in this country with President Obama. Realistically, even if he beats Karzai in a run-off, he'll face a bureaucracy that is weak, fractious and might not be loyal. To foreign ears, Abdullah's promise to negotiate with the Taliban is quite interesting, but Americans want to know more, including how Abdullah (with help, one assumes, from NATO) will determine the good Taliban from the bad Taliban.