Amid mounting security threats, ethnic and political tension and uncertainty over timing, Afghanistan is preparing for a crucial presidential election, with candidates set to begin the campaigning process from Sunday.
“Insecurity will be the main challenge, apart from fraud,” Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, a spokesman for the government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC) said. Some 2,000 out of the nearly 7,400 polling centers cannot be secured because of security threats, he added, saying nearly 9.5 million people had registered to vote.
Already twice delayed because of the mismanagement and bickering among leaders regarding electoral law and who should oversee it, the election is slated for Sept. 28 2019.
It follows the October 2018 parliamentary vote, which was hugely delayed and raised questions over transparency.
Many say they have lost trust in the democratic process, with these issues added to past failures by candidates to deliver on campaign promises.
But others say the poll is the only way to fix Afghanistan, despite some candidates expressing concern that the incumbent leaders might using state resources to their advantage.
The process is shrouded with further uncertainty over US and Taliban negotiations to bring to a close the longstanding conflict between the group and government-backed forces.
Some express concern that even if the elections are held, under the current circumstances, the vote may further deepen the crisis in the country should Washington pursue a withdrawal of US troops.
Taliban opposition to the government in Kabul has seen violent attacks on polling stations in the past.
There are fears that the prospect of a US military pullout will only encourage future attacks.
Violence is on the increase in the country anyway, after last week’s wave of strikes in the capital where both the Taliban and the militant group Daesh conducted five deadly assaults that killed multiple civilians.
The contenders for the presidency are all men.
President Ghani, 70, is a former World Bank official who took office under a US-brokered deal following the elections of 2014, and who currently shares power with Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and former communist Mohammad Haneef Atmar, who served as President Ghani’s national security advisor until last year, are the president’s main rivals.
The most controversial candidate is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a 70-year-old Mujahideen leader who was on the run from 1975 until he signed a peace deal with President Ghani in 2016.
Rahmatullah Nabil, meanwhile, a former spy chief and one of the youngest contenders, is the only candidate who has chosen a woman as one of his two deputies.
The campaign period will last for two months and initial poll results will become clear by October 19 under the current timeline. Final results are set for Nov. 7, with a run-off expected.
Sughra Saadat, a manager at election watchdog Transparency Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said the elections lacked “proper preparedness.”
Taj Mohammad Ahmadaza, a political analyst, said: “On the surface of things, the government shows that things are on the right track for holding the polls, but they are not.
“There is talk of even cancelling the elections so US and Taliban talks can go ahead and leaving President Ghani as head of a transitional government. But in that case, he should not stand for election.”
Fazl Rahman Orya, another analyst, added: “People have become disappointed with elections here as past rounds have been full of fraud and people now ask why they have to risk their lives to vote for someone who cannot then deliver.
“If the elections take place under the current conditions, any stability will be badly damaged and we will see a very deep crisis in Afghanistan, as people and politicians will not accept the result.”