Afghans set to defy the Taliban in presidential vote

An Afghan National Police (ANP) officer loads concertina wire, which will be used to secure polling places ahead of presidential elections A huge security operation is being launched in advance of Saturday's presidential vote

There's nothing like an election when it's not certain who will win, when candidates campaign like every vote counts, and voters are engaged.

That's Afghanistan in 2014.

This third presidential race since the fall of the Taliban is also certain to be marred by rigging, recrimination and violence.

The run-up to this historic poll on 5 April has already been the bloodiest.

And fears of electoral fraud are pronounced.

But behind the stark, dark headlines, a new political culture is slowly emerging with the grammar of elections, not the guns and grabs of war that once decided who would rule.

An Islamist warlord talks about women's rights, a former finance minister urges voters to take him to the palace, and an Afghan may make history by becoming the first female vice-president.

Top contenders in a real race to replace Hamid Karzai have been zipping across the country, sometimes staging big boisterous rallies in more than one province in a day.

This time presidential tickets, which also include two vice-presidents, cut across ethnic lines.

President Karzai admitted to me last year that he played a key role in suggesting running mates to top contenders.

Some of them make strange bedfellows, but such is the roughly woven fabric of Afghanistan.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers are preparing to be deployed across the country ahead of the presidential vote Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers will be deployed to boost security in the run-up to the vote

For the first time since the first presidential election in 2004, there is not much, if any, discussion about who is "America's candidate".

But there is a lot of talk about who is President Karzai's man.

Many assume it is his former foreign minister and loyal ally Zalmai Rassoul.

My own conversations with the president in recent months suggest his thinking may not be so clear-cut.

There is some cynicism that the only real change at the palace will be that Hamid Karzai will continue to operate behind the scenes.

Much will depend on whether a clear front-runner emerges at the head of a pack which now numbers eight presidential hopefuls.

Saad Mohseni, who heads the Moby Group that includes the popular Tolo TV, said their polls indicate the number of undecided voters may be as high as 30-40%.

"Some people get a free lunch, some are intimidated," he said of candidate tactics to persuade people to get out and vote.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers fold gauze into dressing pads in preparation for possible mass casualties due to election-day violence (2 April 2014) The Afghan National Army is preparing for possible casualties when polling takes place

But there is also some good old-fashioned campaigning.

"One of the candidates came down my street and said 'Hello, I'm running for president and this is why you should vote for me'," one young man in Kabul marvelled. "So I decided to vote for him."

His mother said she was keeping her choice secret, in the best of democratic traditions.

Ghost polling stations

But all the worst traditions of this embryonic democracy could still overwhelm the process and damage its legitimacy at a time when a clear convincing mandate is crucial for whoever takes charge at a most difficult time.

Dr Abdullah Abdullah, President Karzai's main challenger the last time round, is already warning of "massive industrial scale" fraud. Such cries of foul play could imperil the entire process.

There is concern about ballot stuffing, ghost polling stations - the kind of cheating that has marked every election since 2004.

There is also worry that the number of election cards in circulation vastly outnumber the number of registered voters.

Western observers commend what is widely seen as a more robust electoral system with more developed checks and balances.

But there are different assessments of the individuals, hand picked by the palace, who run it.

Supporters of presidential candidate Shafiq Gul Agha Sherzai take part during an election campaign rally in Kandahar (2 April 2014) Much will depend on whether a clear front-runner emerges at the head of the pack

On Afghan television, adverts instruct voters on how to spot fraud. "A nationwide observation equals a just election" is its slogan.

But will it be safe?

A deadly wave of Taliban attacks in Kabul, including at the entrance to the heavily guarded interior ministry and the main compound of the Independent Election Commission, has heightened security fears.

The brazen attack on the eve of the Afghan New Year inside the five-star Serena Hotel rattled many foreigners, including a number of election observers, who then left the country.

Defiant response

But for many Afghans, it only strengthened their resolve to carry on.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers participate in a flag-lowering ceremony at Camp Maiwand on 2 April 2, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan Polling day looks set to be another defining moment for Afghanistan

"We are not scared," declared election officials when I dropped in on their meeting in a hotel while the attack on the election headquarters was underway. "That is our message to the Taliban."

Long queues outside voter registration centres only seemed to get longer in a defiant response to Taliban threats.

Every Afghan election has been overshadowed by speculation about a possible "spectacular attack" and this time is no different. Afghan intelligence officials are warning there could be more.

"What would spectacular mean?" asked Andrew Wilder of the United States Institute for Peace who has seen all the recent elections. "With some 6,500 polling stations across the country, it will be hard to stop the vote."

Speculation also continued, right down to the wire, that palace officials were trying to find cause to halt this exercise but President Karzai has repeatedly vowed to oversee a peaceful political transition.

And there is another momentum underway. A poll conducted by the Free and Fair Election Foundation found that more than 75% respondents planned to vote, even though faith in the electoral process was said to be decreasing.

Afghans will cast their ballot for different reasons: in villages, tribal and local loyalties still run deep; in fast-changing urban areas, Afghans may have different motives to try to make a difference.

I have heard mention many times over the past week that "the silent majority" is now finding a voice after so many punishing years of war. But if that majority speaks on 5 April, will it be heard and what will it say?

This is another defining moment in Afghanistan.

Lyse Doucet Article written by Lyse Doucet Lyse Doucet Chief international correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Once again the Taliban show their true colours. Why anyone could possibly see anything to admire in them, is utterly bewildering. What's admirable about preventing people (especially girls and women) from having the rights and freedoms that should be theirs: the rights they had in Afghanistan in the 60s?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Afghanistan would be runner better if a Mandrill monkey was in charge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    @4.NotVeryPC 'Afghanistan has not always been a war torn country'

    Agreed, but it has never been a stable one either ... the last King (of the 'golden era' in the 1960's), was deposed while in Italy. It was that deposing that activated the cycle that's playing out even now.

    Sadly, the Taliban will take over as defacto rulers once again with the ISI of Pakistan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Can people stop going on about the Taliban retaking the country. You forgot that after the soviets left the Afghan government held the Taliban off for almost 18 years.
    In fact the only reason they lost was due to America giving the Taliban weapons during the soviet period.
    Now the Taliban have no super-power backing plus their forces have been decimated far more than what the soviets achieved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Where is their King?.......hehehehe

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Oh dear....democracy is a place with no culture of it. They need their King back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If I ruled the world I would rule just like the Taliban. With mercy :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Taliban are legends imho, so bloomin what if they rule with an iron fist! Around my way we call it 'handling your business.'

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    BANG BANG Taliban! Once I heard some kids shouting to a local kerba shopper:

    So American and their friends are leaving soon, sad to see that as they did not leave anything useful but rubbles for Afghans......but no worry, I guess the Chinese will arrive soon to invest....of course, as return to import minerals they need.

    USA/UK/EU: 0
    Afghanistan: -

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    (a) would the ANA fight for the victors and not just to secure their own power as a military dictatorship?
    (b) would the populace accept the results unlike Egypt?

    If the answer to those things is yes then great - if not there's going to be a bloodbath.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    In spite of all the problems with the election process and the security threat 75% of Afghans polled say they plan to particpate in the democratic process. We can't get 75% of voters in Western democracies off the couch to vote in our elections. Perhaps we've left some small legacy of good in Afganistan after all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Yeah because the Taliban are really gonna listen to the people, leaving now will just allow the Taliban to take control and the country will once again be a safe haven to terrorists. Now I think about it maybe the west wants to leave so it gives them a excuse in 5-6 years time to go back and waste even more money as well as the lives of the young men and women.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    What a joke............

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Democracy only works when all have an equally strong stake in a society and all want a fair result. In Afghanistan this is not the case so the result will be flawed, the elected government will be flawed, most of the population will be intimidated or have their votes stolen by fraud so the result is already predictable and the outcome - more violence intolerance and corruption is predictable too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This election will be held and used as a victory by the US, but all of us who served and continue to serve know that in a few short years of our pull out of Afghanistan, the Taliban will rule again. The blood of our soldiers has been shed for nothing but Tony Blairs own agenda and he should be brought to bear on involving us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    @ dexter "There has been war in afghanistan since the beginning"

    In the History of Afghanistan, Prior to the soviets entering the country was pretty rich and prosperous with some great educational institutes, with its reserves of rare earth it could easily produce the same wealth as most developed nations

    Afghanistan has not always been a war torn country

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    There has been war in afghanistan since the beginning, no one has ever been able to rule it and the whole idea of american's/british marching in was a disastrous act that not only weekend our economy but made no difference at all. innocent blood spilled as a result yet we declared ourselves victorious by our PM, even a blind isn't blind enough to see the actual facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The insurgents will take over the current ISAF areas of: East (Bahgram), South (Kandahar) and Sout West (Helmand) very soon. The ANA are not local and the ANP are over matched and liable to local coercion. I have completed 2 tours and, whilst it is the message that is not to aired, Ifear that we haven't made a difference; possibly only an expensive mess

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I wish the Afghan people a good peaceful future, but I fear years of occupation by coalition forces has been for nothing, and soon we will see the North V South conflict that erupted after the Soviets left. The Taliban have never really joined the political process, and can't be defeated in the field, and will continue murder for their misguided and false views on Islam looking to occupy Karbul.



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