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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Optimism wanes ahead of Afghan vote

The injection of youth is encouraging, but democracy does not thrive amid bloodshed

Afghan soldiers carrying a wreath for Abdul Jabbar Qaharmaan, a prominent Afghan politician and candidate of the upcoming Parliamentary elections, who was killed in a bomb attack in Helmand. Jawad Jalali / EPA
Afghan soldiers carrying a wreath for Abdul Jabbar Qaharmaan, a prominent Afghan politician and candidate of the upcoming Parliamentary elections, who was killed in a bomb attack in Helmand. Jawad Jalali / EPA

This has been one of Afghanistan’s bloodiest election campaigns. At least 10 candidates have been killed in the last few months by those seeking to dismantle democracy with the barrel of a gun. Yet throughout it all, onlookers remained cautiously optimistic – until Thursday. Less than 48 hours before millions of Afghans head to the polls, the powerful police chief of Kandahar, General Abdul Raziq was shot and killed in broad daylight. The province’s governor, Zalmai Wesa, was wounded in the attack.

There is already a great deal at stake on Saturday. For the ineffectual government of Ashraf Ghani – and its Nato backers – the polls are an opportunity to exhibit some semblance of control. The Taliban, which holds or contests at least two-fifths of the country, is seeking to accentuate the frailty of Mr Ghani’s administration. And for ISIS, this is a chance to remind the world of its gory relevance.

With the threat of election-day violence growing constantly, turnout could suffer as the desire to vote falls behind the more imminent need to survive.

These elections were initially scheduled for October 2016, but security concerns delayed them. However, clearly the situation today is no more conducive to holding fair and safe elections.

In April, ISIS bombed a voter registration centre in Kabul, the seat of the government, killing 57 people trying only to exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Taliban exerts firm control over large parts of rural Afghanistan and has intensified its campaign of violence this year, killing hundreds of police and military personnel.

The obstacles to Saturday’s election are encapsulated by the turmoil in Ghazni, a province less than 100 kilometres from the capital, parts of which were violently seized by Taliban fighters in August. Voting has been postponed in the province and those living there – who deserve peace and prosperity – left disenfranchised.

Four years after the scholarly Mr Ghani took office, Afghans are dissatisfied with his counter-insurgency efforts. And justifiably so. Elections are not delivering the basic security that Afghanistan desperately needs, while a string of deeper problems, including poverty, high unemployment and paralysing corruption, make for a bleak picture. Afghanistan, we must remember, is yet to recover from the 2001 Nato-led invasion, even as western powers search for a way out.

There are reasons to remain hopeful, thanks to the injection of youth into the process. Some 60 per cent of candidates in Saturday’s elections are under 40, many are well educated, idealistic and their worldviews are not entirely rooted in the country’s 1990s civil war. But their arrival on the scene has sparked a violent response from established warlords.

It serves as a reminder – despite the optimism that youth engenders – that change will not come until control is snatched back from the Taliban and ISIS is defeated. Because amid bloodshed, democracy cannot thrive.