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Afghan Presidential Election Opens Under Threat of Violence and Dispute

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans headed to the polls on Saturday to elect the president of a country suffering through one of the most violent periods in its recent history, with nearly two dozen of the country’s 34 provinces facing attacks on any given day and Taliban militants threatening all-out war on the democratic process.

And the Taliban aren’t the only threat voters face: There are fears the election could paralyze the government and lead to a prolonged political crisis, complicating efforts to reach a peace deal to end the country’s long-running war, now entering its 18th year.

The vote has turned into a battle between two bitter rivals, the incumbent president, Ashraf Ghani, and his government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. A dispute between the two men during the 2014 elections nearly split the country, resulting in an American-brokered unity government.

Voting is taking place at just under 5,000 polling sites, about 2,500 fewer than during the 2014 election, as violence has spread more widely since then. Experts fear that the number of closed sites could increase on Saturday as the Taliban threatens voters directly, blocks highways or blows up communication towers.

“We are deeply concerned about the security situation on election day, and even concerned that people might not come out to vote in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif or that our staff might be targeted,” said Mohammed Ayoub Bayani, the election chief in Balkh Province, where Mazar-i-Sharif is the provincial capital.

In the first three hours of voting, it appeared that security concerns were affecting turnout across the country. Small explosions were reported in the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. More than a dozen rockets landed in Kunduz city in the north, killing at least one person and injuring 27 others.

“The process was smooth,” said Najib Jabarkhel, a voter at a heavily guarded polling center in Kabul, the capital. “But the turnout is low because of threats — the Taliban have threatened that if you go to vote, bring your shroud with you.”

In parts of the country, including Kabul, complaints were trickling in about technical problems. One frequent complaint was that voters could not find their names at the polling stations where they had registered to vote. Such registrations were introduced to curb mass fraud.

Protecting the balloting has added to the load of security forces already stretched thin by the threat of violence by the Taliban, who have vowed to attack anything connected with the election. Last week, a suicide bomber killed 26 people who were waiting to be let into a campaign rally for Mr. Ghani, who was not injured in the blast.

The voting also comes amid eroded trust in the country’s election bodies, with consecutive elections marked by confusion and fraud and election officials often implicated. All 12 commissioners who oversaw last fall’s parliamentary election, which resulted in a prolonged crisis, were fired, and nine were sent to prison.

Both Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah have signaled that they see themselves as winning the contest, and that any other outcome would indicate a fraudulent election.

Afghanistan’s new election commission has promised measures to ensure a cleaner vote, including a biometric verification process that requires a voter’s fingerprints and a photo to prevent large-scale ballot stuffing. But similar promises were made before the parliamentary elections as well.

Hawa Alam Nuristani, the chairwoman of Afghanistan’s election commission, said only those votes that had biometric verification would be counted.

“I call on the brave people of Afghanistan to come out and vote — the only way out of crisis is elections,” Ms. Nuristani said.

An extended political standoff, if it occurs after the vote, could threaten the cohesion of the national security forces, which have endured years of conflict and been sustained with tens of billions of dollars in aid from the United States and its allies.

Reflecting such fears, when they formed a coalition government in 2014, Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah divided the security ministries, with Mr. Abdullah leading the police and Mr. Ghani leading the army.

Western and Afghan officials, however, say the risk that the security forces will be dragged into a political dispute has been reduced in recent years: A younger generation of leaders has made progress in professionalizing the forces, these officials say, and the new leaders are less partisan than their predecessors.

“Our No. 1 priority is securing the day, and making sure Taliban threats are minimized,” said Massoud Andarabi, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister. He has worked to keep provincial police leaders and others out of politics, he said, “so that we have legitimacy in a difficult time.”

Mr. Andarabi said both Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah had made clear to him they wanted the security forces to stay clear of their political rivalry.

“Elections will go, institutions will remain,” Mr. Andarabi said.

More than 70,000 soldiers and police officers have been given additional duties of protecting the electoral process.

Security officials said that about eight direct attacks marred the campaign, a sharp reduction from about 90 during the 2014 elections — partially because campaigning this year involved fewer and smaller public rallies.

A total of 18 candidates — from a former intelligence chief to a former militant leader to a university lecturer and a surgeon — registered to challenge Mr. Ghani. But campaigning was slow in the initial weeks, as the United States appeared to be nearing a deal with the Taliban that cast doubt on whether these elections would proceed amid efforts to reach a wider political settlement with the insurgency.

When President Trump called off the peace talks, the elections became certain again and campaigning intensified, dominated by what appears to be the two-way race between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah.

Both men have built large coalitions in their bids to win the contest. Many experts and officials suggest a repeat of the 2014 is likely, with neither candidate getting the required 50 percent in the first round, forcing a runoff.

Mr. Ghani, 70, is an American-educated anthropologist who formerly worked at the World Bank. The first time he ran for office in 2009, he got about 3 percent of the vote. He became president in 2014 in a disputed vote, and has now cast himself as the “state builder,” asking for a second term to build strong institutions for Afghanistan.

Mr. Abdullah, 59, is an ophthalmologist who rose through the ranks of the anti-Soviet fighters and then became foreign minister after the Taliban were toppled in 2001. This is his third time running for the presidency.

He is presenting himself as the moderate leader who can work with a broad coalition, in contrast to Mr. Ghani, who has alienated many political leaders — including his own vice president, who now backs Mr. Abdullah.

A third candidate, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, only made peace with the government in 2017, leaving behind a small but stubborn insurgency. Mr. Hekmatyar was one of the main faction leaders during civil wars in the 1990s that left Kabul in ruins.

Only fraud could deprive him of a clear victory, Mr. Hekmatyar recently declared, adding a veiled threat.

“Don’t make us regret our return, don’t make us regret our participation in elections, don’t force us to chose another option — we can do that, and we have the experience of it also,” he said.

Source: NYT > World News

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