[KABUL]-- Concerns are growing that it will be impossible to hold free and fair presidential elections in Afghanistan this year.
If the vote does go ahead in the autumn as scheduled, some politicians believe it could provoke a violent backlash from whole swathes of the population who will be unable to take part because of poor security.
In particular, they fear Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, will oppose any skewed result that leads to victory for a minority candidate from a relatively safe northern area.
Nematullah Ghaffari is an MP from Helmand, which has been the scene of intense fighting between insurgents and British soldiers since 2006. It is now generally regarded as one of the most dangerous places in the country.
He said the Taliban controlled much of the southwestern province, ruling through a combination of intimidation and respect.
“The election in Helmand and other provinces like it will have lots of problems. Some of the people might vote in the capital of Helmand and the district centers, but the majority of people will not vote and there are a number of reasons for that,” Mr. Ghaffari said.
“During the first election people were happy and optimistic, but they can see nothing good has come from this government and now they don’t care. Also, in that election there were not many threats from the Taliban and now there are.”
Up to 30,000 extra American soldiers are due to arrive in Afghanistan over the coming months, almost double the number presently in the country. Most will be sent to the south and east, where the insurgency is deeply entrenched and taking on increasingly sophisticated forms.
A key task of the troops will be to provide security for the presidential and provincial council elections that have been rearranged from the spring to the autumn. Parliamentary elections are due in 2010.
One way Washington and London try to justify the war is by saying it has helped establish a democracy, so any cancellation of the polls would be an embarrassment.
However, even in Kabul people do not feel safe. Mothers worry that their daughters will be kidnapped going to school; rockets land inside the city, and this week a suicide attack killed an American soldier and four others in a heavily guarded part of town.
Elsewhere, the country is a permanent war zone as air strikes, house raids, roadside bombings, ambushes and pitched battles cause chaos. Thousands of families have fled their homes in such provinces as Kandahar and Helmand.
“If the election takes place and people are unable to vote they will not believe this is the right government,” Mr. Ghaffari said.
“In the south lots of people are tired of fighting too. But they will not accept the orders of the government if the new president is from the north. Then they will join the Taliban and the government will no longer have any control in those areas.”
Afghanistan’s presidents are traditionally Pashtuns, members of the country’s largest ethnic group who live mainly in the south and east. But with most Pashtun-dominated regions now wracked by violence, some feel minority candidates will have an unfair advantage.
Hawa Alam Nuristani was shot three times in the leg when she campaigned for a seat in parliament back in 2005. She still won, though, and now represents Nuristan, a remote north-eastern province that borders Pakistan and is an insurgent stronghold.
“If the election happens the situation will get worse,” she said in an interview with The National. “The enemies will become more powerful and the suicide attacks, kidnappings and killings will increase.
“If the situation was good we would be happy to have elections. But right now it is not and we don’t want to put an empty ballot box out for the people if they don’t have a card to put in it.”
While the ethnic make-up of Nuristan is different to most other troubled parts of the country, the local insecurity means its residents face similar problems to those in the south.
“Unfortunately, people cannot vote in Nuristan. In many parts of Afghanistan the enemies are very powerful and that is especially the case there,” Ms. Nuristani said.
She also claimed difficulties with the poll could even arise in some relatively safe northern provinces because many eligible voters had not been included in the registration process, which began in autumn.
Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief electoral officer at the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, denied there had been any significant problems in the preparations so far.
He said he expected only about eight districts in the entire country would not be involved in registration because they were too dangerous. But, he added, security “should” improve for there to be a legitimate vote.
“I cannot say we cannot hold elections [if security remains the same] because for presidential elections the whole country is one constituency. We can conduct elections but how acceptable these elections will be for the people of Afghanistan, how fair, depends on how many people will participate,” he said.
Mr Barakzai expects about 50 candidates to compete for the presidency. They will almost certainly include Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, who won in 2004 and has already announced he will stand again. Eight million people voted five years ago and Mr Barakzai anticipates a potential turnout of more than six million this time.
“It’s very important [that the election is held] because people should understand elections are not only for one period of time,” he said.
“Elections have a direct connection with security. If the security situation is worsening and people are unhappy, the best way to correct that is to come and participate in elections. If elections do not happen and people are unhappy, insecurity may spread all around the country.”
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