Afghanistan braces for militant attacks as polling centres open
KABUL: Afghans are bracing for more deadly violence on Saturday as voting gets under way in the long-delayed legislative election that the Taliban has vowed to attack.
Polling centres opened at 7:00 am (0230 GMT) across the war-torn country, with some 54,000 security forces deployed to protect them.
But there are concerns the killing of a powerful police chief in southern Afghanistan on Thursday will scare off many voters.
Polling has been delayed in Kandahar province until October 27 after a Taliban-claimed attack on a US-Afghan security meeting that killed three people, including General Abdul Raziq.
General Scott Miller, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, escaped injury in the shooting, but 13 others were wounded.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) on Friday urged voters to turn out to cast their ballots — but “vote only once” — and called on others not to interfere in the process.
“They should observe impartiality in the election so that we have a transparent, impartial and fair election in Afghanistan,” IEC chief Abdul Badi Sayyad told reporters.
– Taliban threats –
Almost nine million people have registered to vote in the parliamentary election, which is more than three years late and only the third since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
But the threat of militant attacks and expectations for massive fraud are expected to deter many voters from showing up at the more than 5,000 polling centres.
In the days leading up to the poll, the Taliban issued several statements urging candidates to withdraw and voters to boycott what the group calls a “malicious American conspiracy”.
Shambolic preparations for the ballot have been made worse by a wave of poll-related violence that has left hundreds dead or wounded.
At least 10 candidates out of more than 2,500 contesting the lower-house election have been killed so far.
The most recent victim was Abdul Jabar Qahraman, who was blown up Wednesday by a bomb placed under his sofa in the southern province of Helmand.
Most of the candidates are political novices and include doctors, mullahs and journalists. Those with the deepest pockets are expected to win.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which has spearheaded international efforts to keep Afghan organisers on track, on Friday called on voters to “exercise their constitutional right to vote”.
The poll is seen as a crucial test for next year’s presidential election and an important milestone ahead of a UN meeting in Geneva in November where Afghanistan is under pressure to show progress on “democratic processes”.
But the 11th hour introduction of biometric voter verification machines, which have never been used in an Afghan election, threatens to derail the process.
Observers are concerned the results could be thrown into turmoil if the devices are broken, lost or destroyed.
There are also fears the data could be manipulated before preliminary results are released on November 10.
Votes cast without the controversial machines will not be counted, the IEC has said, even though polling centre workers have received little or no training in how to use them.