‘Voting means you’re crazy’: violence and fraud overshadow Afghanistan poll

Afghanistan must choose a new president this week, but every election over the last decade has been riddled with fraud and marred by violence, and fears are growing that the poll on may be the worst yet.

It comes as the war is raging with unprecedented intensity. Last week alone, dozens were killed when the Taliban flattened a hospital in an attack in the south, and a US drone strike hit a group harvesting pine nuts in the east. And looming over the poll is the future of controversial US efforts to negotiate a troop withdrawal with the Taliban, suspended after a tweet by President Donald Trump but not entirely dead.

Whoever wins the presidential poll will be in charge of trying to extend any deal to cover Afghan security forces, and negotiate first a ceasefire and then some form of shared government that does not sign away all the gains in democracy and women’s rights of the last two decades.

The insurgents have vowed to target the election, and there have already been attacks on a campaign rally and one of the vice-presidential candidates. The tempo of their assaults means many people have already decided to stay away from polling stations in fear for their lives.

“Voting when there is such a bad situation means you are crazy. And I am not crazy,” said Qasim Walizada, a 29-year-old taxi driver from western Kabul. “The polling stations are not secure.”

This year is effectively a repeat of the 2014 race, when results were so twisted by fraud, and heavily contested, that the US had to step in to broker a government of national unity. There are 18 candidates but only two men who have a real chance of victory: incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his CEO Abdullah Abdullah, who have spent five years feuding bitterly under their banner of unity, and both believe they can now seize control of the government.

But with both men running strong tickets, more fraud seen as inevitable, and turnout almost certain to be dented by security worries and disillusionment, many analysts fear that this re-run of the 2014 contest will produce a repeat of its disputed and fraud-damaged results.

“There will be a crisis after the election. Take it for granted,” said one senior Afghan source. With the US far more disengaged, a repeat of that standoff risks pitching the country into full-blown political meltdown, potentially galvanising the Taliban and undermining the push for peace negotiations between Afghans.

“I think [a repeat of 2104 results] is likely and it would have really dire consequences for Afghanistan, especially since this election is intended to showcase the continuation of democratic processes and institutions in negotiations with the Taliban,” said Ali Yawar Adili of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN). “President Ghani himself has said the election is a litmus test for the continuation of the republic.”

Campaign and government officials are trying to temper expectations on how many people will come to the polls, saying voter turnout will probably be closer to the 3.6 million ballots cast in last year’s parliamentary vote than eight million counted in the last presidential election.

“Now registered voters are around nine million. I cannot set a level of what kind of turnout will give legitimacy to a future government, but we are hoping and doing our best, and expect at least more turnout than for parliamentary elections,” said Waheed Omer, director general of the Office of Public and Strategic Affairs. “People have the understanding they are standing on the crossroads of whether they want to go vote and get a legitimate government and a continuation of the republic.”

Yet diplomatic sources say even that figure may be optimistic, given the level of disillusionment in urban areas – where turnout for the parliamentary vote was already muted last year – and the effect of Taliban threats everywhere.

Even in secure areas, some voters are fed up with both Ghani and Abdullah after five years in which they have failed to stem violence, to prevent an economic downturn, or to tackle the corruption that is endemic across the country and at all levels of government.

“None of the candidates is trustworthy,” said Sabara Akhlaqi, a 38- year-old teacher from northern Balkh province. “Whoever wins will just fill their pockets with money that belongs to the Afghan nation, and commit all kinds of crimes. And if we vote for them, we will share responsibility for what they do.”

In swathes of the country, people will not have the choice to vote; they have been effectively disenfranchised already by the war. About a third of the 7,366 polling centres will be closed because security forces cannot protect them, although it is hard to trace the exact patterns of exclusion, because the government has not provided a map of areas where stations are closed.

Deputy interior minister General Khoshal Sadat said that a huge security operation would see 70,000 police dedicated to protecting polling stations. And although registration is usually tied to voter residence, he said that those whose nearest centre was closed would be able to vote elsewhere. “For example in one of the districts in Badakhshan, in an ideal world you would have five polling stations in that area. For now, people have to walk for an hour to get to the district centre to vote in one polling station,” Sadat said. “So it doesn’t prohibit people from voting.”

But anyone who votes has their finger marked with indelible ink, to prevent them casting multiple ballots. It would be hugely risky for people to return to Taliban-controlled or dominated areas branded with a mark of defiance that lasts days. In past elections, the Taliban have cut off the fingers of people who voted.

Even if Afghans defy security concerns to turn out in large enough numbers to give any government a popular mandate, there are still serious concerns about the effect of fraud after years of elections marred by cheating on an industrial scale.

The severity of the corruption laced through the electoral system was underlined earlier this month when the former chairs of both the country’s election commission and its electoral complaints commission – responsible for running polls and managing complaints – were jailed for five years for graft, along with eight of their colleagues.

And in a further blow to voter confidence, the US has pulled $160m (£128m) of aid for Afghanistan, citing government corruption and apparently linking the decision to elections. “We want free and fair elections,” secretary of state Mike Pompeo said when asked about the funds. “We’re going to do everything we can to support them, and we need every actor in the region, every leader, every citizen in Afghanistan to work towards that end.”

A new biometric system to verify voter identities is meant to cut down on ballot-stuffing and ghost voters, but civil society groups warned that the machines cannot prevent some forms of fraud such as duplicate voting, and election officials have not been given proper training in using them.

Among the problems expected to cloud the elections are lack of clarity about how many polling stations are open, and the lack of clean and comprehensive voter lists. “Even the Independent Electoral Commission does not know the exact number of polling centres that should be open on election day due to security. They should be approved by the security agencies, and the number given to the IEC has been questioned by the IEC,” said AAN’s Adili. “If some of these stations open in areas that are insecure and are not accessible to observers, then there could be ballot-stuffing.”

Many of these problems have been compounded by the fact that for months the elections were an uncertain prospect, on the political calendar under the constitution but thrust into a strange kind of political limbo by turbocharged US peace talks with the Taliban. Due to wrap up by September – an unofficial deadline set by Trump – they were widely expected to pave the way for an interim government, with elections cancelled or delayed.

For some in Kabul that is exactly why it is vital people turn out for this vote, despite all its flaws. “This election is really important,” said one Afghan civil society activist. “Because less than a month ago we were on the brink of having an emirate imposed on us.”