Better Late than Never
With less than a fortnight to go until Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, concerns about security have come to a head after the Taliban issued a direct threat to target the long-awaited vote. The Taliban issued a statement on Monday, condemning the elections and outlining plans to violently disrupt and prevent them by targeting the security forces.
Originally scheduled to be held in October 2016, the upcoming parliamentary elections on Saturday 20 October have been hit by several delays. The hold-up has mainly been down to disputes between leaders due to an overhaul of the electoral system – a key component of the power-sharing deal agreed between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah following the 2014 presidential election. More recently though, election campaigning has been somewhat overshadowed by the security threat presented by the Taliban.
The Taliban have increased disruptive activity in a bid to undermine the elections and the US-supported government. Last week, at least 10 Afghan police officers were killed by Taliban insurgents in the Wardak province. The insurgents reportedly attacked the officers in the Sayad Abad district whilst they were conducting a security operation to re-take control of key highways after the Taliban had blown up a number bridges the previous day. An armed clash broke out, during which, the district police chief was killed along with nine other police officers and a government building was set on fire.
On Tuesday, a suicide bomb attack killed eight people and wounded 11 others during an election campaign event in the southern Helmand province. Among those killed was 32-year-old parliamentary candidate Salem Mohammad Achakzai – who had been holding an event in his campaign office in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah when the attack occurred. While the president has blamed the attack on “terrorists”, no group has claimed responsibility for the incident. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) have urged the public to boycott voting; however, the Taliban have long held a strong presence in Helmand and have a history of carrying out deadly attacks in the area. Achakzai has been described as a local businessman who was a first-time election candidate, striving for positive change. He is the sixth candidate to be killed in a targeted attack, with almost 2,700 candidates contesting the election overall.
One of the biggest challenges the government faces is enabling safe and secure voting in warring districts. Both logistically and in terms of safety, these districts represent a significantly higher risk of militant attack or disruptive activity than the areas where the government have full control. It is these areas where the Taliban are likely to focus their efforts to disrupt the election process.
Earlier this month, another suicide bombing targeted a campaign rally in Nangarhar, highlighting the need for heightened security at all major campaign events. Security measures across the country have been strengthened, with some 50,000 police and military personnel to be deployed to more than 5,000 polling centres on election day. The security forces will remain on high alert throughout the election period. Along with election campaign events, governmental and foreign institutions are also considered to be at a particularly high risk of being targeted. There are also likely to be public demonstrations, with the potential for civil unrest. In the past, large protests have posed a higher risk of being targeted by militants, especially when there is a political agenda. Advisories have been issued warning people to avoid large demonstrations which are likely to occur in major cities and could become violent.
Allegations that the president is looking to manipulate the election results in order to boost his 2019 presidential campaign have also created a rift between voters. The parliamentary elections are seen by many as a test run for next year’s presidential vote and the suspicion surrounding the president stems from similar allegations which marred the 2014 presidential election. The issues of voter fraud and political transparency have been major talking points during this year’s parliamentary vote, with many candidates promising to work towards refining electoral reform and improving transparency within government. Other issues hindering the already tumultuous elections include: dropping district council elections; postponing elections in Ghazni due to protests; ethnic disputes; accusations of fraud and bureaucratic inefficiency; and a late decision to implement biometric voter verification. While the elections may not be democratically perfect, many believe they are better than no elections at all.
For some, the risk of terrorist attack might put voters off; however, many have shown resilience in the face of terror and continue to campaign for democracy. Despite the instability and security threats, there appears to be an incredible ability amongst the Afghan public to look forward to a brighter future. Voters hope to play their role in pushing the country towards a democratic state – indicating calls to boycott the election have fallen on deaf ears.