As Afghanistan prepares for a elections this week, it is faced with the twin specters of an escalating insurgency and the threat of post-ballot political unrest.
A major suicide bombing rocked the capital, Kabul, on Saturday, August 15, killing at least ten and injuring 100 more. Fighting has broken out in various regions around the country, a rocket attack has closed the airport in Herat, and candidates are starting to cancel campaign appearances for fear of assassination attempts.
With concerns over low voter turnout and widespread fraud plaguing the process, many are beginning to question whether the presidential and provincial council elections on August 20 will have any legitimacy among the population.
And remarks by some senior members of the presidential candidates’ campaigns, notably from a representative of one of the main challengers, have raised the possibility of mass protests if the results are seen as having been rigged.
The first of the warnings signals came in a late July interview in The National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, UAE, with the campaign manager for leading presidential contender Dr Abdullah Abdullah told a reporter that his faction would not recognize the re-election of the incumbent president Hamed Karzai.
“We will not accept it,” Abdul Satar Murad told the newspaper. “[Karzai] cannot win unless he resorts to large-scale corruption. So we will not accept that. The nation is not voting for him. He only gets votes through his governors and by corruption.”
Karzai is the clear favorite in the poll, and is almost certain to secure another term in office. The only serious question is whether Abdullah can pull enough votes to deprive the president of a first-round victory.
In 2004, Karzai easily triumphed over a field of 17 challengers, gaining 54 per cent of the vote on election day. According to the constitution, if no candidate received more than 50 per cent of the vote, the top two will face off in a second round.
The possibility of a runoff has appeared more likely in recent weeks. Officials from the Independent Election Commission, IEC, have said privately that the campaign will continue for “a few more months”, and two recent opinion polls suggest that Karzai does not command the voting strength to gain a first-round win.
But Abdullah’s camp has put up an unexpectedly strong showing, and, according to Murad, will be prepared to protest if things do not go their way.
”There will be a big demonstration,” he told The National. “[There will be] street demonstrations, and it will turn bad. The country will land in the middle of a crisis.”
But the major candidates, including Abdullah himself, have backed away from any threat of violence.
“We look to the stability of Afghanistan as a necessity for every move and change,” Abdullah told the media shortly after the interview in The National. “We will never do anything under any circumstances which threatens stability in Afghanistan.”
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, another top presidential contender, told IWPR in early June that Afghans “would not take any attempt to steal the election lying down”, but his campaign manager, Ajmal Abedi, has insisted his people would not resort to any attempt to foment violent protests.
“We strongly oppose post-election violence,” Abedi said. “Maybe there will be fraud during the elections, but we should be patient, and not go towards violence. We should solve the issue through legal channels.”
Karzai’s campaign dismisses any allegations of attempted fraud, and says that such rumors are circulated to serve certain candidates’ political interests.
“These rumors are started by candidates who know that the results of the elections will not be in their favor,” said Wahid Omar, spokesperson for Karzai’s campaign. “One way or another they want to challenge the results. They have created a concern that, if candidiate A does not win the election, Afghanistan will go towards violence.”
The Karzai campaign, he emphasized, had no such aim, “We are sure of the people’s votes. We will not advocate violence, no matter what the results of the election. If Dr Abdullah wins, or somebody else, we will accept it calmly.”
No one has been officially sanctioned for spreading rumors of violence; however, following the article in The National, many pointed fingers at Abdullah’s team. For their part, supporters of Abdullah are blaming Karzai for conducting a propaganda campaign against them.
Fazel Sancharaki, spokesperson of the National United Front and a supporter of Abdullah, said that the issue of violence had been exaggerated by the Karzai team to such an extent that Afghans and the international community now thought that Abdullah was trying to sabotage the elections.
“Karzai wants to silence his rivals,” Sancharaki said. “This is definitely why Karzai’s team is spreading these rumors. He wants to force people to accept the results of the elections.”
Karzai’s campaign strongly denies such allegations.
The international community, which is overseeing the elections process, has also expressed concern over the possibility of violence.
Kai Eide, United Nations Special Representative to Afghanistan, told the media that he had delivered a forceful message to all of the candidates about the issue. He called for unity and shared responsibility, to avert any out break of unrest.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, caused a stir with an op-ed piece in the Financial Times, published August 11. If violence were to break out, he warned, it could be very dangerous for the mission of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, in Afghanistan.
”There is the danger that one or more of the contenders might not accept the declared results, leading to protracted violence, probably focused on Kabul. It is unclear whether Afghan security forces could control the situation on their own, or would require assistance from the ISAF. This could be a no-win situation, with serious consequences for the ISAF role in Afghanistan, whether it participated in the pacification effort or not.”
Afghanistan has experienced years of war and crisis in which the gun has had the last word. A number of analysts inside Afghanistan warn that the capacity for violence exists if a candidiate chooses not to accept defeat.
“The situation is not at all conducive to elections,” said political analyst Ahmad Saeedy. “In Helmand province, for example, it is not possible for everybody to participate. So when boxes full of votes come from that place, some candidates will say that this is fraud. They will protest and fan the flames of violence.”
Recent events in neighbouring countries have contributed to the feeling of unease, he added.
“The post-election violence in Iran has had an influence on Afghanistan as well,” Saeedy said. “And on the other hand, the armed opposition is also trying to bring the legitimacy of the elections into question.”
If protests begin, Saeedy added, they might be difficult to control.
“There are guns in Kabul and other provinces,” he said. “And the enemy also has a presence in the capital. If there are protests, everybody can take advantage of the opportunity to pursue his own ends. This is not a distant possibility.”
The interior ministry has issued stern warning that they will deal harshly with anyone trying to foment violence.
Kabul residents are also worried about the possibility of post-election trouble.
“When candidates talk about violence, it means they are thinking of coups and revolutions,” Mohammad Mansoor, a resident of Kabul, said. “So why are they running for office? If people do not like a person, they will not vote for him. If the candidates are not prepared to respect the vote of the people, and if they will not accept the results, then why should we vote? it is better if they just decide among themselves.”