Undeterred by Taliban onslaught, election candidates take polls head on

Published: March 29, 2014

An Afghan man (R) waits to receive his identification card to vote in upcoming elections at a registration centre in Kandahar. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: With Afghanistan heading for presidential and provincial council elections on April 5, candidates are defying Taliban security threats and campaigning across the country’s main cities.

True to its promise of disrupting the democratic process, the Taliban carried out a series of deadly attacks recently, including a suicide bombing of a five-star hotel on March 2 that killed a foreign election observer and eight other people, forcing two major international election observer groups to pull out of Afghanistan.

On Friday, the Taliban said they launched a suicide attack on a guest house of foreigners and an adjacent Church in Kabul, which was targeted because “invading countries are using the church to convert Afghans to Christianity.”

“Attacks will continue and will keep on killing foreigners,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

Independent analysts say the withdrawal of watchdog organisations like National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could undermine the credibility of the vote. However, Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) officials have played down the absence of these groups, insisting that dozens more like them will stay to monitor the polls.

IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor says their panel has registered 14 international observer groups and the pullout of two missions would not disrupt the monitoring process, according to Pajhwok – an independent Afghan news agency.

About 1,206 observation groups (67 of them local) have approached the IEC to monitor the elections and the commission has registered 150,000 individuals in this regard, including poll observers and media representatives, Noor says.

By the looks of it, the Taliban are determined to spread pre-election terror. Afghanistan saw another bloody day on Tuesday when a group of suicide bombers stormed an election office in Kabul near the residence of key presidential candidate, Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Taliban bombers also attacked a bank in Asadabad, the capital of eastern Kunar and a gathering in northern Kunduz province. Officials put the death toll of all three attacks at 15.

Labelling the upcoming polls ‘sham elections’, the Taliban have issued special instructions to their fighters to “target all its workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices”. In a statement, the Taliban leadership last week called upon the people to “keep away from electoral offices, voting booths, rallies and campaigns”.

The brazen attacks prompted calls from the IEC on the country’s security institutions to strengthen security for its employees and polling stations.

IEC officials, however, remain confident that the group behind the violent attacks will not succeed in sabotaging Election Day.

Despite the deadly security threat, many people are taking the risk and participating in election rallies across the country.

On Friday, front-runners Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Dr Zalmai Rasoul made various public appearences in Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and the capital, respectively.

A recent survey conducted by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) reveals nearly 92% of Afghans support the elections and 75% want to cast their vote.

“The will of the people is strong, especially among civil society and educated Afghans who want elections to be successful,” FEFA head Jandad Spinghar told The Express Tribune from Kabul.

However, Spinghar remained cautious, saying they would keep a close watch on electoral fraud and the fragile security environment.

Members of the Afghan media also remained hopeful regarding voter turnout despite Taliban attacks.

“The Taliban are seditious fighters who are always resorting to insurgency and riots,” the Arman-e Melli newspaper noted in an editorial comment this week, adding the people should “stand up against the Taliban.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2014.

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