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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Afghans head to the polls this week amid growing militancy and cautious optimism

On Saturday, there will be more at stake than simply choosing between parliamentary candidates

Afghan election workers load ballot boxes and election materials onto a truck. Rahmat Gul / AP
Afghan election workers load ballot boxes and election materials onto a truck. Rahmat Gul / AP

On Saturday, nearly nine million registered Afghan voters will have the chance to head to the polls to choose who sits in the country's parliament.

Lined up to contest the 250 seats are at least 2,500 candidates. The myriad faces and symbols of these election hopefuls have looked down from ranks of posters across the country for weeks. Afghan MPs might have a reputation for being corrupt and for rarely turning up but the election campaign has been more passionate and vibrant than security circumstances might have predicted.

In a parliament where MPs are not organised along party lines, which of these individuals wins is likely to be of less national significance than whether the government can manage to hold a credible election at all.

The diplomats and international military leaders who rotate through Kabul are sometimes mocked for endlessly declaring that the next six months will be critical for Afghanistan. Saturday's vote comes at a time when their claims might be more valid than usual.

Afghanistan's third parliamentary elections since the Taliban were toppled after the 9/11 attacks come at a time of both horrendous escalating violence and a diplomatic push to try to find a settlement.

The Nato-led international coalition has spent 17 years propping up the Afghan government and frustration is growing in Donald Trump's White House both at the cost and slow progress.

Meanwhile, the Taliban appear buoyant. The militants are encroaching on more of the country, killing large numbers of Afghan police and soldiers and in August, partially overrunning the city of Ghazni. After years of refusing to meet them, the Americans have now sat down to talk with Taliban envoys twice, lending political credibility to the militants.

At such a time, the stakes of holding a successful election are higher than usual. All sides will be hoping to seize on what happens on polling day to strengthen their hand. Mr Trump has been persuaded to double down on America's mission to Afghanistan but is deeply sceptical and wants to see results. The Afghan government wants to prove it is in control and the Taliban wants to hold up proof the western-backed democracy they despise is fake and powerless. Saturday's vote also serves as a rehearsal for next year's more important presidential election.

The parliamentary elections are already three years late after being delayed by political disputes and rows over voter registration reforms. It has only been the strong-arming of international donors desperate for signs of democratic progress that have persuaded president Ashraf Ghani to hold a poll.

Among the risks for Mr Ghani is that polling day turns into a very public demonstration of just how little of the country his forces and government can actually control and protect. His critics hold him partly responsible for the slide in security, with his micro-management style and rifts within his government tying the hands of his security forces.

Holding a nationwide election in a country of mountains, deserts and remote villages would be challenging at the best of times.

But holding one that the Taliban openly oppose when they control or contest two-fifths of the country and as many as 400 soldiers and police are reportedly being killed each week is a daunting prospect indeed.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt polling despite repeated behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade them to not actively interrupt the vote.

A statement earlier this month called for a boycott of the vote and warned candidates to back out of the “bogus” elections.

The vote, the militants claimed, was “conducted for the sole purpose of legitimising those stooges who are authorised by the occupying forces” and “of minimising the [people’s] resentment against the foreign occupation”.

Taliban fighters have been ordered that “no stone should be left unturned for the prevention and failure of this malicious American conspiracy”.

The threat of Taliban violence has already shaped Saturday's result. Voters have been unable to register and left disenfranchised because the government has no control in their districts. At the same time the number of polling centres has been cut from 7,366 to about 5,100. In Ghazni, where Taliban fighters seized parts of the city in August, the elections have been postponed.

Violence in recent days alone has added to fears of what might happen on Saturday. Dozens of police were killed, wounded or captured across northern Afghanistan on Tuesday as Taliban fighters attacked checkpoints. There is also the prospect of a repeat of the fraud which has marred earlier elections.

It is against this backdrop that Zalmay Khalilzad, Mr Trump's special envoy for Afghanistan, last week met Taliban envoys in Doha for a second round of discussions to try to jumpstart a peace process.

Discussions have not yet moved beyond early “talks about talks” and the Afghan government is not yet involved but if the country is to reach a political settlement then western diplomats say negotiations must at some stage turn to what the future of the country looks like.

For many in the Taliban, the current constitution underpinned by elections is incompatible with their demands for a strict regime. Any signs that the election has a low turnout, is marred by fraud or cannot be completed will be seized upon by the insurgents for their claims that the current set-up must go, says Haroon Mir, a political analyst in Kabul.

But at the same time, a successful election in the face of the threats will demonstrate the government's control and how much democracy and the constitution are inescapable facts of life in Afghanistan.

There is also more hope for the elections than the violence might suggest. Part of the reason for the surprisingly vibrant campaign is that many of the candidates come from a new generation. More candidates aged under 30 are standing than ever before. Many are idealistic, better educated and unlike the older generation, are not tainted by their association with the civil war of the 1990s.

Optimists hope this new generation could start to reject the endemic corruption that holds back the country and riddles the government with greedy and incompetent ministers. Yet hopes of such a profound change of political fortune seem slight without a solution to the Taliban insurgency.

As dawn breaks on Saturday, millions will make their own personal decision over whether to head to the polling stations in an election that has more at stake than the choice of local MPs.

Ben Farmer is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist covering Afghanistan and Pakistan