x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Afghans unmoved by poll choices

Voters in one city are so upset by corruption and the state of the economy that some say they will not vote in the presidential election.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, AFGHANISTAN // Corruption and a weak economy are the main issues of concern to residents in one of Afghanistan's largest cities as this summer's presidential election fast approaches. In Mazar-e-Sharif there are not the kind of pervasive security worries that dominate the south and east, but that does not mean there is widespread happiness about the direction the country is heading. Residents complain that such resources as natural gas have not been exploited for the benefit of the public and accuse the police of being a law unto themselves. With less than two months to go until the poll, scheduled for Aug 20, many have either vowed not to vote or are still weighing up the options. "I have not made a decision yet. We will see what [President Hamid] Karzai has to say. We are happy that he has helped make the security here good compared to other provinces, but he hasn't done anything else," said Haji Fazel Rahman, a businessman. A final list of 41 candidates has been drawn up for what is due to be Afghanistan's second presidential election. Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister, are the incumbent's two most realistic challengers. With violence at record levels and insurgent attacks reaching new parts of the country, security will be the priority for a number of people. But in Mazar-e-Sharif, near the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, different concerns dominate the agenda. Shopkeepers say business has dried up in the past two years and increasing numbers of people are unable to find work. Others claim that civil servants ask for bribes to resolve simple everyday issues, like the payment of electricity bills. The police, meanwhile, are accused of using intimidation and threats to extort money. "We have not found anyone to vote for. The candidates we watch on TV are not acceptable, so maybe I won't vote at all," said Haji Saleh Mohammed, a father of 10, who owns a fabric store. Campaigning for the election officially got underway earlier this month although in reality it had been going on for weeks before. Posters of the candidates are plastered across towns and cities, with Kabul in particular dominated by pictures of the candidates and their running mates. Mr Karzai is the firm favourite after a number of his potential rivals dropped out before the race had even started. He has secured the support of some of Afghanistan's most influential warlords, which is likely to prove crucial. One opinion poll hinted at just how disillusioned people across the country may have become with their leading politicians, however, and just how hard re-election might be for Mr Karzai. It showed that Mr Karzai can expect to receive 33 per cent of the vote, Mr Abdullah seven per cent and Mr Ahmadzai three per cent. A similar result on Aug 20 would require a second round. The election is already a major concern for the international community because of the Taliban-led insurgency. In a clear sign of how bad the situation is, Nato has announced temporary plans to boost troop numbers in Afghanistan by between 8,000 and 10,000. Mazar-e-Sharif is not a traditional Taliban stronghold and there have only been few rebel attacks in the city during the occupation. Despite this, Mr Mohammed warned that the growing anger and frustration sweeping across the country was a sign that mass resistance may lie just around the corner. "The foreigners have killed a lot of innocent people in other provinces. I am afraid that if the entire population stands against them and says you must leave, it will be impossible to stop," he said. His complaint, that large amounts of money have been donated to Afghanistan "but we haven't seen any of it", is heard in villages, town and cities nationwide. Such feelings feed directly into the insecurity and they will play a crucial role in the build-up to and aftermath of the election. Khan Mohammed left his home in Ghorband and moved to Mazar-e-Sharif in search of a better life. He set up a shoe shop in a market and for a while business was good. But since 2007 customers have been few and far between. The 34-year-old said he believes Mr Karzai remains the best option for the country in part because he is already wealthy and will therefore be less corrupt. csands@thenational.ae