Afghans go to the polls Saturday to vote in a presidential election that few expect will have much effect in bringing peace to the war-torn country.
With the Taliban threatening violence against anyone who participates, and concern that the widespread fraud that blighted previous elections will resurface, analysts fear a low turnout will seriously undermine the result.
“The security threats, coupled with a trust issue in the election’s transparency, may translate into a very low turnout,” Afghanistan analyst Ahmad Saeedi told AFP ahead of the vote.
“That would undermine the legitimacy of the election process and any future government that may come out of it.”
The stakes are high.
Whatever the turnout, Afghans are choosing a leader who will almost certainly have to negotiate with the Taliban at some point – even though the hardline Islamist group is doing everything it can to undermine the process.
Eighteen names were originally on the ballot, but the poll is considered a two-horse race between current President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive.
Both claimed victory in the 2014 election – a vote so tainted by fraud and violence that it led to a constitutional crisis and forced then-US President Barack Obama to push for a compromise that saw Abdullah awarded the subordinate role.
Five years of bitter rivalry later, the parallels are unsettling, yet nothing suggests President Donald Trump would be willing to play such a role in any fresh disputes.
In fact, analysts suggest the new Washington administration has largely undermined the Afghan government by excluding Kabul from months of talks it held with the Taliban in a bid to extract US forces from America’s longest-running war.
Deal seemed imminent
The Taliban have also refused to negotiate with Ghani – whom they consider a Washington puppet – and he was totally marginalized during negotiations.
An agreement between the Taliban and Washington seemed imminent less than a month ago and observers thought the election could be suspended yet again to allow for the implementation of the withdrawal plan, even as Ghani insisted it must go ahead.
Ultimately, Trump scuppered the deal at the last moment.
That decision boosted what has been a fairly lackluster election campaign, strengthening Ghani’s argument the winner needs a strong mandate to negotiate with the Taliban to finally achieve a lasting peace.
But a low turnout is still a more likely result.
With the Taliban controlling or influencing vast swathes of Afghanistan, it was impossible to hold rallies in many parts of the country.
Campaigning was also hampered by violence from the first day, when Ghani’s running mate was targeted in a bomb-and-gun attack that left at least 20 dead.
More than 1,300 civilians were killed in the country in the first half of 2019, according to the UN.
Logistically, authorities plan to open almost 5,000 polling stations – 500 more were abandoned because of lack of security.
The interior ministry says 72,000 forces will help to secure polling stations.
Election officials say this will be one the cleanest election yet held, as they have gone the distance with equipment such as biometric fingerprint readers and better training for poll workers to ensure the vote is fair.
Still, the US embassy in Kabul has said it is “disturbed by so many complaints about security, lack of an equal playing field and fraud.”
Some 9.6 million Afghans are registered to vote, but many have lost any hope that – after 18 years of war – any leader can unify the fractious country and improve basic living conditions, boost the stagnating economy or bolster security.
“It is very likely that I do not vote,” 29-year-old Jawad Zawulistani told AFP.
“I have lost hope that my vote will be of any importance and the result of election would bring any change to my life and to my people’s lives.”
Results are not expected until October 19. Candidates need more than 50 percent of the vote to be declared outright winner, or else the top two will head for a second round in November.
Cast of characters
A former World Bank economist, an ophthalmologist, a spy chief and a one-time warlord are among the 15 candidates. Eighteen candidates are set to appear on the official ballot, although three have since dropped out and officials say there is not enough time to update the ballot papers.
The run-up to the poll has been chaotic, with little in the way of campaigning and large swathes of the country unable to vote due to Taliban threats.
Here is a rundown of the main candidates:
President Ashraf Ghani has variously been described as visionary, short-tempered, academic and overly demanding.
The former World Bank economist and finance minister has long nurtured dreams of rebuilding Afghanistan, and firmly believes he is one of the few people – perhaps the only one – capable of handling the responsibility.
Despite a lack of credible polling he is widely perceived as the overall favorite, although he has made little headway against either the Taliban or deep-rooted government corruption.
And even though Ghani has made repeated overtures to the Taliban for peace, they continue to dismiss him as a US-controlled “puppet.” The Americans sidelined him from now-suspended talks with the militants.
If re-elected, Ghani will be given a mandate in any future Afghan-led peace process with the Taliban – should they ever agree to such negotiations.
If talking fails, Ghani has vowed in the past to fight the militants “for generations” if necessary.
Former ophthalmologist and resistance fighter Abdullah Abdullah is again on the cusp of becoming the president of Afghanistan after being defeated in two previous elections, both tarnished by widespread allegations of fraud.
Abdullah, once an eye doctor in Kabul, was a member of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government during Afghanistan’s 1992-1996 civil war, and made a name for himself abroad for his fluent English and refined manner.
His formative political experience was as the right-hand man to Ahmad Shah Massoud – the celebrated Tajik commander who led resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and to the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, only to be assassinated by Al Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks.
Both Abdullah and Ghani ran in 2014, and both claimed they had won.
To avert a full-blown conflict, then US secretary of state John Kerry brokered a power-sharing deal between the two that left Abdullah as the country’s chief executive.
Abdullah has been in an unending tug of war with Ghani ever since, with bitter infighting in their administration preventing major attempts at reforms and legislation, while the two avoid public appearances together due to deep-seated enmity.
If finally elected, Abdullah has pledged to prioritize peace. He’s also made vague promises to improve the economy.
The butcher of Kabul
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has lived many lives in a career forged in the crucible of Afghanistan’s decades of war. One of the most notorious warlords in Afghanistan’s bloody history, he has also been an anti-Soviet commander, prime minister and, now presidential contender.
He was accused of killing thousands during the 1992-1996 civil war and earned the nickname “the butcher of Kabul” for his brutal shelling of the capital.
After the 2001 US-led invasion, Washington designated him as a terrorist, accusing him of colluding with Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.
Hekmatyar made a surprising re-entry into the political mainstream in 2017 following a peace deal between his dormant Hezb-i-Islami militant group and Ghani.
If elected, Hekmatyar has vowed to oversee the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan once and for all.
The lion’s brother
Ahmad Wali Massoud is hoping to cash in on the fame of his renowned elder brother Ahmad Shah Massoud, the so-called “Lion of Panjshir” who worked so closely with Abdullah.
Other than a stint as the Afghan ambassador to the United Kingdom, Massoud has little in the way of political experience and has largely spent the last two decades as his brother’s keeper, running a foundation in his name.
But he remains popular with the country’s Tajik ethnic group – especially power brokers from his native Panjshir province, which has enjoyed an outsized role in the government since 2001.
Massoud, however, is believed to have little chance of winning and at best can hope for an appointment in any future government.
The 12 other candidates encompass a wide range of personalities, including former communists and a spy chief.
Rahmatullah Nabil is hoping his security credentials will woo voters after he served twice as the head of the Afghan intelligence agency.
And former communist party member Nur ul-Haq Ulumi – who also briefly served as an interior minister in 2015 – is in the race but stands little chance of making waves.