Fears of violence and fraud hang over Afghan presidential election

Taliban threat expected to affect turnout as Ashraf Ghani seeks backing for another term

In this Monday, Sept. 23, 2019 photo, Afghan security forces stand guard in front of an election poster for presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan. Millions of Afghans are expected to go to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president, despite an upsurge of violence in the weeks since the collapse of a U.S.-Taliban deal to end America’s longest war, and the Taliban warning voters to say away from the polls. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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Rusi Khan has more pressing concerns than Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday.

The 51-year-old stands in his shattered guest house in Kabul as workers repair the damage from a Taliban car bombing that targeted an international office and residential compound across the street. Sixteen of his guests were injured.

He worries that the repairs will cost more than the $10,000 (Dh36,700) he has scraped together with the help from family and friends.

Even so, and despite the Taliban's threat to attack polling stations, Mr Khan intends to vote.

“Of course I’m afraid,” he says. “Many family members have told me they won’t be voting, but I still see it as my duty. Do we need elections right now? It’s not for me to decide, but I know that we need peace.

“If I’m still alive on Saturday, I will vote.”

He will be among a minority of Afghans expected to take part in the election.

Rusi Khan, 51, stands on the top floor of his guesthouse, now bebuilt, but destroyed by a car bom on September 2. He says he will vote regardless, even though elections are not his top priority.

The election is going ahead after the collapse of US-Taliban peace talks that could have seen the vote postponed for a third time this year and an interim government formed instead. President Ashraf Ghani had been pushing for the elections to renew his mandate, but many Afghans are sceptical. Past elections have been tainted by not only violence but also fraud and corruption.

The army recorded 690 attacks during the last presidential election in April 2014 that saw Mr Ghani take office for the first time amid widespread fraud allegations.

Mr Ghani and his chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, are front runners among the 16 candidates left in the race after two dropped out. Mr Abdullah's post was created under a deal brokered by the US after he initially accused Mr Ghani of winning the 2014 election by fraud and refused to accept the result.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for this year's election to be "credible and transparent".

FILE PHOTO: Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (R) participate in a family photo at the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland July 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

"Wholesale fraud in previous presidential and parliamentary polls are likely to discourage voter participation," says Nishank Motwani, who was an official observer in Afghanistan's past three elections. "Some voters may feel their ballots are irrelevant to the electoral outcome as the exercise itself does not deliver the actual result, meaning that political bargaining and international mediation supersedes the voice of the people.

"It is hard to see Afghan citizens who ascribe to this view risking their lives for a vote they believe is decided not in the ballot boxes but behind closed doors."

The Taliban have vowed to target polling stations and warned voters to stay away. Reports of the insurgents intimidating voters have increased as polling day nears, the United Nations says. On Tuesday, three civilians were killed in Kandahar when the Taliban bombed a campaign office for Mr Ghani.

Mr Motwani says the insurgents have significant incentive to disrupt the election. "The Taliban are vying for political power with the ultimate goal of political primacy and see a new government as an obstacle to their end goal."

Fear of polling day violence is especially high in Kabul, the capital and home to some six million people.

“I’m not going to risk my life to vote,” says Ramin Rahmini, a taxi driver in Kabul. Much of his family has left the country during the past decades of war and he admits that his fears sit deep.

“I’m afraid wherever I go and this week’s elections will only make it worse. We’ve seen death every day. We don’t need to see more.”

About 9.6 million people have registered to vote across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, but experts say the actual turnout might not reach even half that number.

“If we look at last year’s parliamentary elections, the majority of registered voters – almost two thirds – didn’t turn up," said Ali Yawar Adili, an election expert working with the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "With the Taliban already stating that they plan to attack polling stations, and with their additional threats to cut off electricity, we have reason to believe that this year’s turnout could be even lower.”

In this Monday, Sept. 23, 2019 photo, Afghan election workers load ballot boxes and other election materials on a truck for distribution at the Independent Election Commission compound, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Millions of Afghans are expected to go to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president, despite an upsurge of violence in the weeks since the collapse of a U.S.-Taliban deal to end America’s longest war, and the Taliban warning voters to say away from the polls. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

A total of 5,373 polling stations are being set up across the country, with preparations for the vote scheduled to be completed just a day prior to the polling date. Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission is due to announce preliminary results on October 19, with the declaration of the final results tentatively scheduled for November 7, but these dates may change.

Much of the campaigning over the past two months has been done remotely, with candidates addressing rallies via video call to avoid security threats. At one of the few rallies Mr Ghani attended in person, in Parwan province neighbouring Kabul, a suicide bomber killed at least 26 people. Survivors who were taken to hospital later complained about not having received the 500 Afghanis (Dh23) they were promised to attend the rally.

While voter turnout could be low in urban centres and provinces that have seen active fighting and attacks, it is expected to be higher provinces with a better security situation such as Panjshir, Bamyan and Herat. In some rural villages, where residents know or are even related to the militants in the area, people say they are likely to vote.

Abdul Hadi, 48, lives in Kas Kunar and says he will only vote because he knows his village and all the armed groups active in the region.

Abdul Hadi, 48, living in Kas Kunar district of Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kunar, bordering Pakistan, says he feels comfortable voting because he knows the area and is aware of any potential threats.

“Both my wife and I are going to vote here and we feel safe,” he says, adding that it would be different had they been living in a city. “We’d be staying at home if we lived in Jalalabad or Kabul.”

In Kabul, people’s fear is evident. Many residents have limited their movements, postponing errands and meetings until after the election. The day has been declared a national holiday, with schools and government offices remaining closed. The defence ministry has posted 80,000 security personnel across the country, but this does not seem to have assuaged fears.

“Risking my life to cast a vote isn’t worth it, especially if I look at our corrupt government,” Mr Rahmini says, as he navigates the busy roads of Kabul. “I don’t care about the elections. I just want to be alive.”