Afghans go to the polls on April 5 to elect a new leader to replace President Hamid Karzai. The elections – leading to Afghanistan’s first-ever peaceful democratic transfer of power – are important. As Western forces withdraw from the country and development aid dwindles, the winner will have to tackle an array of complex challenges requiring innovative and strategic thinking.

Afghanistan’s next president faces the gigantic task of stabilising a country racked by a continuing violent insurgency and an economy in tatters. Relations with neighbours must be improved. Stability beyond 2014 is also conditional on the ability of Afghanistan’s new leaders to hang on to hard-won gains.

Attention is inevitably focused on the polls and negotiation of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States (US). However, democracy and accountability are not ensured by elections alone. Election monitors, both foreign and Afghan, must do their best to ensure that the polls are transparent and fair. The focus this time around must, however, also be on good governance, not merely on identifying winners and losers.

The US is certainly the key player in Afghanistan but the European Union (EU) is also well-placed to help the country weather difficulties ahead. The change in leadership offers an opportunity to reinvigorate EU-Afghanistan relations and forge a stronger long-term partnership.

First, the good news. Voter turn-out is expected to be impressive. A recent survey published by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) shows that more than 91 percent of respondents support the holding of elections and more than 74 percent want to participate.

Large numbers of army, police and international forces as well as local observers have been deployed to help secure the elections. More than 13,000 women will also help with security to boost gender participation. A large number of younger voters will be casting their ballots for the first time.

The line-up of candidates is convincing. The three main candidates — former Foreign Ministers Abdullah Abdullah, Zalmai Rassoul and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani — have sound experience. Qayum Karzai, President Karzai’s brother, has formally withdrawn his bid for president and announced support for Rassoul. Significantly, the presidential campaign has not only centred on personalities, but also on issues.

Observers say some fraud and vote rigging is inevitable, but not on the massive scale that characterised the 2009 polls. With no candidate expected to emerge as an outright winner on April 5, a run-off election is expected, delaying the installation of a new leader until July or August.

The list of challenges is daunting. Security continues to be a major problem. Kabul and a number of other provinces have experienced a spate of suicide attacks and assassinations after the Taliban leadership issued a statement last month promising to “use all force” possible to disrupt the elections. The recent attack on the Independent Afghan Election Commission was especially deadly.

Afghanistan’s economy remains in shambles – and highly dependent on the presence of international forces. Despite the billions of dollars poured into the country, Afghanistan continues to lie near the bottom of global development rankings. Poverty is widespread, with the government estimating that 42 per cent of the country’s total population lives below the national poverty line.

As foreign troops pull out and investment dries up, growth is expected to tumble to 3.5 per cent in 2014, down sharply from 14.4 per cent in 2012. Rampant corruption and patronage further hinder economic development.

Yet Afghanistan has a wealth of natural resources and a young population which – if the conditions are right – can ensure economic development. Agriculture, mining, and services are likely to remain the drivers of growth but more needs to be done to increase private-sector investment, improve domestic resource mobilisation and foster job creation. The new government will face the challenge of pressing for critical sector-specific reforms, including the Mining Law. It will also have to tackle the sharp increase in opium poppy cultivation

Ties with Pakistan remain fraught, owing to Kabul’s allegations of Islamabad’s involvement in terror incidents in Afghanistan. Relations with other regional powers are less fraught but will need to be carefully nurtured to avoid a repeat of the instability of the 1990s.

The EU is one of Afghanistan’s major aid partners, spending over 2 billion euros in Afghanistan since 2002. Promises of long-term support have been made with Europe’s special representative to Afghanistan, Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin, underlining that the “EU will remain as a key partner for Afghanistan, as Afghanistan moves toward a decade of transformation.”

Moving beyond aid, the EU and Afghanistan are discussing a comprehensive strategy which will focus on areas where the EU can add most value, including further improvements in access to health and education and respect for human rights.

Going forward, the EU must remain engaged and build on the successes of the past. Europe is well placed to share its expertise and support Afghanistan in turning the page. Over the past years, the EU has helped the government to provide basic services in three main areas: governance and rule of law, agriculture and rural development and health and social protection. Security sector reform should become more important.

Recognising the important role that women play in shaping peace and security, women’s rights should be given a higher priority in EU contacts with Afghanistan. Stronger support for Afghan civil society will remain important.

The election of a new president presents an opportunity to finalise EU-Afghan negotiations on a Cooperation Agreement on Partnership and Development (CAPD). With its focus on trade, development and home affairs, the agreement will not significantly change the nature of the relationship. It will, however, give a much-needed political push to EU-Afghan relations.

If real change is to come, however, the EU will need to adopt a stricter and tougher approach. Future EU support should require a clear reaffirmation by the new government that Afghanistan wants a genuine and accountable partnership. The EU should continue to prod and pressure Afghanistan to meet its commitments under the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF) which includes pledges to undertake tax reform, respect human rights and the rights of women and promote the rule of law.

The upcoming elections are important, but should be looked at as part of a long-term transition process. Afghanistan needs a new government – but above all it needs good governance.