Violence, vote-rigging concerns overshadow Afghan parliamentary polls


Afghanistan is set to hold much-delayed parliamentary elections next Saturday, the first since NATO's combat mission ended in 2014.

An election regarded as successful would send a strong message to the Taliban and the Islamic State and would also set the stage for next year's planned presidential elections.

Afghanistan's major donors have been pushing for the polls to take place because they see them as an important milestone for a nation into which they have poured billions of dollars. But the polls have been overshadowed by concerns about vote-rigging and security in the war-torn country, in which bombings by the militants have claimed more than 1,000 civilian lives so far this year.

Some 8.8 million voters in 33 provinces have registered to vote for 250 representatives. Voters in Afghanistan's 34th province, Ghazni, will remain at home however - elections are not being held there due to a local dispute about the division of constituencies. Kuchis (Nomads) and Sikhs - a small community numbering just over 100 families throughout the country - make up another two constituencies.  

But Afghanistan has a history of election fraud with past polls repeatedly tainted by widespread ballot-stuffing and there are fears that a discredited process could provoke a fresh crisis in Afghan politics. This time round, major political parties as well as analysts have already expressed scepticism about the true number of registered voters.

In four constituencies the number of registered voters exceeds the estimated number of eligible voters by more than 100 per cent, according to a report by the think tank Afghanistan Analysts' Network. And early last month the Grand Coalition of Afghanistan, comprising several powerful opposition parties, displayed thousands of fake national identity cards stamped with voter stickers to the local media, saying they were evidence of widespread fraud.  

Mohammad Yousuf Rashed, head of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), an institution working to make elections more transparent and enhance accountability, says observation organisations have been kept in the dark during the registration process.  

Noor Rahman Akhlaqi, a member of the powerful Jamiat party, has meanwhile claimed that "no more than 3 million have registered to vote." Jamiat, also part of the Grand Coalition, was one of the opposition parties that closed offices of the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (IEC) in at least four provincial capitals for days in early September, bringing preparations for the election to a halt.

The protesters demanded electoral reforms, in particular the use of biometric tools - which use voters' fingerprints and photographs to identify them - on the day of voting. In a bid to meet their demands, the Western-backed Afghan government purchased 22,000 biometric kits to be used at every polling station on election day. 

Meanwhile, the number of international observers among the 6,500 observers due to take part in the elections will be the lowest since the U.S. intervention began in 2001. Aside from vote-rigging, ensuring election security is a big challenge for a country in which 13.8 perccent of its districts are fully controlled by the Taliban and some 30 percent are contested.

The country's government plans to deploy more than 50,000 troops five days ahead of the vote, according to the Interior Ministry. But of the 7,383 polling stations, only 5,106 will be open and the rest will remain closed due to security reasons, according to the IEC, with residents in those areas to vote at mobile stations in nearby districts.  

Violence has plagued the electoral process from the start. At least nine candidates have so far been killed. One murder was claimed by Islamic State militants, while the rest remain unsolved. 

Taliban militants last week called the election "a U.S. conspiracy to further justify the foreign occupation" and vowed to do everything in their power to block the polls. The militants said they would target anyone who tried to make the process a success - especially the Afghan security forces.

Meanwhile the role of parliament itself and its legality - its current term has been extended by more than three and a half years - have been questioned by candidates and voters alike.  Maryam Sama, a prominent news anchor campaigning to represent the capital Kabul, says that the legislative body is merely symbolic and full of corrupt lawmakers working for their own benefit. One of over 600 female candidates running for parliament, she says she wants to work for the public interest and "win back public trust." 

But Matiullah Habibi, a 20-year-old Kabul resident, said he hadn't bothered to register to vote because he didn't believe his vote would count and thought that this election would see more vote-rigging than any previous poll.  "What good will it do?" he asked.

Sohrab Jawhari, another Kabul resident, said even a fraudulent election would be better than none at all. He would vote, he said, because it was "better than sitting idly by."    (dpa)

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