Afghanistan heads for polls amid Taliban threats

Kabul, April 4: Afghanistan has its date with history Saturday when it will go for presidential and provincial council elections under the shadow of threats from the Taliban who have vowed to disrupt the poll process.

Eight candidates are in the presidential fray and more than 2,500 candidates are running for the council seats in 34 provinces across the country. Three contenders withdrew from the presidential election following threats from the Taliban.

The security forces have been put on high alert in big cities for the elections.

These elections are crucial as Afghanistan prepares for a democratic transfer of power for the first time as President Hamid Karzai, who has helmed the South Asian nation since 2001, will not be in the running this time.

Karzai, who has led Afghanistan for more than 12 years since the fall of the Taliban, will be out of the presidential race as the constitution does not permit a sitting president more than two terms in office.

Saturday’s vote will determine whether the gains of the US era will be sustained after most US troops go home in December.

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and runner-up in 2009′s presidential election, Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister, are considered to be the front-runners for the post of president.

Ashraf Ghani, a Ph.D scholar from Columbia University, is from the Pashtun ethnic group and will be backed by Abdul Rashid Dostum, a leader of the Uzbek ethnic group.

Abdullah Abdullah is identified as belonging to the Tajik ethnic group, despite the fact that his parents are Tajik and Pashtun.

He has partnered with Mohammad Mohaqeq, a leader of the Hazara ethnic group.

Qayum Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, ended his presidential bid and threw his support to former foreign minister, Zalmai Rassoul.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, almost two-thirds of the total population of Afghanistan is below 25.

A candidate must secure more than 50 percent of valid ballots to assume the office of president, failing which the top two candidates will have to go into a run-off.

According to the country’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) data, a total of 3,808,556 eligible voters have registered since registration was opened in September 2013. Of these 2,488,526 are males and 1,320,030 females .

There are also 29,469 Kuchis or Pashtun nomads registered.

Election authorities have classified 3,140 of the 6,845 polling stations as unsafe and large swathes of the country, particularly in the south and east, might see almost no turnout. Despite the Taliban intensifying their attacks in the run-up to the elections, recent polling by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan found that 75 percent of Afghans wanted to vote.

The Taliban have intensified their attacks to stall the election process as they consider the process un-Islamic.

Sixteen Taliban militants were killed in separate incidents in Afghanistan Thursday while six policemen were killed Wednesday in a suicide bomb attack at the country’s interior ministry office.

Taliban militants kidnapped a provincial council polls candidate and eight civilians late Sunday in the country’s northern province of Sari Pul and their bodies were found Tuesday.

Campaigning for the presidential and provincial polls ended April 2. Following polling Saturday, counting of votes for the presidential election will be held April 6-20.

Preliminary results of the presidential election will be announced April 24 and the final result May 14. However, in case there is a need for a run-off between the two top contenders, it is likely to be held May 28, according to the election commission timeline.

Counting of votes for provincial councils elections will be held April 21-May 12 and the final results will be announced Jun 7.

Ahead of the elections, a senior UN official urged Afghans to use this Saturday’s presidential and provincial council elections to shape the future of the country through peaceful, democratic means.

“This is your chance, this is your right; you should not allow anyone to deprive you of your right to go and vote and determine, by peaceful democratic means, the future of your country,” said UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Jan Kubis.

His comments came at a press conference in the capital, Kabul, ahead of the end to the official campaigning period Thursday night.

“The election will mark yet another indispensable step in moving forward in building democracy, but also in providing the necessary legitimacy to the next leadership,” said Kubis who is also head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).