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Threats And Fears Dampen Optimism For Afghan Election

Javid Faisal (L) is campaigning become a member of the Wolesi Jirga, lower house of the Afghan parliament.

Javid Faisal is one of many young Afghans aspiring to become a lawmaker. He is campaigning to join the country’s main legislative body, the Wolesi Jirga, or the lower house of the parliament.

Faisal was born during the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and his determination to run in the election stems from his desire for a better future for his children, a daughter he says is close to his heart and a son he describes as a gentleman.

The parliamentary election on October 20 marks Afghanistan’s third since the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in 2001. The pre-election mood in the country is dominated by optimism but marked by fears of violence and voter fraud.

According to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC), 2,561 men and women are campaigning for 249 Wolesi Jirga seats.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the vote. Concerns about the failure of the country's security forces to protect candidates and voters alike grow with each passing day.

Acknowledging possible risks, Faisal insists that “elections must happen in Afghanistan so that Afghans can choose their future."

If successful, Faisal will represent the southern province of Kandahar, which the Taliban are seeking to reclaim as their birthplace.

Amid a civil war, the hard-line student militia first emerged in Kandahar in 1994. In the following years, they overran most of Afghanistan until a U.S.-led military operation forced their regime to crumble for hosting the Al-Qaeda terrorists that Washington held responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Seventeen years later, the war in Afghanistan continues, and the election now seems a main target for of the insurgents. On October 9, a Taliban suicide attack hit an election rally in Helmand, a large province bordering Kandahar. Candidate Saleh Mohamad Achakzai was among the eight victims killed.

Election campaign poster of Saleh Mohammad Achakzai, a candidate for the upcoming parliamentary elections who was killed in a suicide attack on October 9 in Helmand
Election campaign poster of Saleh Mohammad Achakzai, a candidate for the upcoming parliamentary elections who was killed in a suicide attack on October 9 in Helmand

Last week, at least 18 people were killed in a suicide attack on a campaign rally in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the attack.

In a statement this week, the Taliban called on its supporters to prevent the election. “People who are trying to help hold this process successfully by providing security should be targeted, and no stone should be left unturned for the prevention and failure of this malicious American conspiracy,” said an October 8 statement by the insurgents.

Since the official launch of the electoral campaign in late September, at least nine candidates have been killed, according to the Afghan election commission.

Faisal, who previously served as spokesman for the Afghan chief executive, however, says he is not deterred by the violence. "Elections must take place, and it has to be countrywide, just, and fair as stated in the constitution,” he said.

Security tops the list of concerns for observers.

Yusuf Rasheed, head of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, expressed concern about the future of the elections after the October 9 bombing. “A lack of security could further discourage people from participating in the election,” he noted.

With less than two weeks till election day, major security improvements are unlikely. Polls are not expected to take place in many remote districts in rural Afghan provinces where insurgents control or contest large swathes of territory.

Last month, the IEC announced that voters in the country's central Ghazni Province will not be able to vote because Taliban control most of its 18 districts. The Afghan government’s control is limited to the provincial capital, also called Ghazni, and military and government outposts dotting villages and district centers. In August, the Taliban even briefly overran the provincial capital.

“This is not good,” said Abdul Ghani, a resident of Ghazni. “A huge chunk of the population here will be watching Afghans in other parts voting for a new legislative body.”

He says that depriving some Afghans from participating will undermine the credibility of the election. "With a shrinking number of voters, the parliament will lack legitimacy,” he noted. “It won't have the people's consent while drafting laws and making serious decisions."

Ghani says one of Afghanistan’s foremost problems today is the perception that the government is detached from the people. He says that an uneven election is likely to further fan this perception.

In Kandahar, Faisal is upbeat. His days are filled with speeches and door-to-door campaigning. His social media accounts are brimming with selfies with his constituents.

"I expect a huge turnout," he said.