Graft, threats of violence cloud hopes for Afghan vote
Taliban threats, shuttered polling centres and warnings of widespread fraud are clouding hopes for Afghanistan's September 18 parliamentary election, a key test of an already fragile democracy, observers have warned.
With the poll less than two weeks away, the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission said it has already received 1,503 complaints, ranging from public resources being given to preferred candidates to interference by government officials.
Early signs for a smooth and fair process are not promising.
"Things are getting worse. Many (politicians) are just after making themselves rich and working for their own interests," said Azizullah, a 32-year-old Kabul civil servant.
"I do not want to vote, because I have lost my trust in the government, parliament and election under the current situation," he said.
The election is a litmus test of stability in Afghanistan before US President Barack Obama conducts a war strategy review in December that will examine the pace and scale of US troop withdrawals from July 2011.
Graft and cronyism are major concerns ahead of the vote after last year's fraud-marred presidential election in which a third of the votes for President Hamid Karzai were tossed out as fake.
According to the government-appointed Independent Election Commission, preliminary results should be available four days after the vote but final results may not be out until October 31.
Those dates depend on the number of complaints received, which promises to be high given the number already lodged and that 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament.
Seventy-six candidates have already been disqualified, according to the IEC, for offences ranging from improper registration to links with warlords and private militias.
"The parliamentary elections (have) to be a step forward, and my fear is that we might miss this opportunity once again, and it might turn into a curse," former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah said on Sunday.
At about the same time Abdullah was speaking, the Taliban further clouded an already grim picture by issuing its first explicit threat to disrupt the poll, vowing to target foreign troops and then Afghans who take part.
At least four candidates have been killed so far, according to the United Nations and government officials, and dozens of campaign workers wounded. Some of the attacks have been blamed on the Taliban and other insurgents.
The Taliban mounted about 130 attacks against last year's election. While failing to disrupt the process significantly in much of the country, but voter turnout was low in the ethnic Pashtun south, where the Taliban are strongest.
The threat of poor security has already forced the IEC to close 938 out of 6,835 polling centres across the country, potentially disenfranchising thousands of Afghans even though they will be able to vote in other centres.
There are almost 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan but they will play a background role during the election, with security to be provided by Afghan police and soldiers.
Still, violence is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted by US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, with military and civilian casualties at record levels.
Despite the threats, Abdullah urged Afghans to vote.
"Giving up on the democratic process will not get us anywhere, and the international community will not achieve any of their goals," he said.