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Security concerns make Afghan elections dangerous for politicians, voters alike

By David Nakamura
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; A06

KABUL -- On a recent campaign swing through Kandahar, Afghan parliamentary candidate Khalid Pashtoon brought the essentials: posters, leaflets and 15 bodyguards armed with pistols and rifles.

Pashtoon, who is up for reelection, figures he's a marked man -- a prime target for the Taliban insurgents, warlords and drug dealers aiming to create chaos during the Sept. 18 elections. Already, three parliamentary candidates have been assassinated, and on Saturday in Herat, insurgents ambushed another candidate's convoy, killing that man's brother.

It's not just Pashtoon who is nervous, but also his constituents. The 500-person banquets he organized for voters five years ago have been reduced to meetings with the few dozen tribal elders brave enough to see him, he said.

"I'm not afraid of a gunfight. We can defend ourselves," Pashtoon said in his home in relatively secure Kabul. "But the suicide attacks, that's what I'm afraid of."

Across Afghanistan, especially in the south and east, increasingly brazen attacks by anti-government groups have cowed many candidates for the 249 lower house seats as well as voters. Afghan election officials announced last week that 938 of the country's 6,835 polling centers will remain closed on election day because of security concerns, leaving 1.5 million of the country's 13 million registered voters unable to participate.

Officials said this disenfranchisement is a side effect of a strategy to limit the rampant fraud that plagued last year's presidential election, when Hamid Karzai was returned to office amid allegations of widespread ballot-stuffing and bribery.

"The lesson learned from the last elections is that where security does not exist, it creates an opportunity for those who want to make fraudulent activities," said Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief of the Independent Election Commission.

Barakzai pledged that the elections, which were postponed from last spring, will go forward next month despite calls from some candidates to delay them again. The commission has improved ballot security, increased background checks for employees and compiled a blacklist of 6,000 people involved in fraud last year who will not be allowed to participate, Barakzai said. His goal is 40 percent voter turnout, with fraudulent ballots limited to 10 percent.

International monitoring organizations praised the commission for publicizing the list of closed polling stations well before the elections. But they said the commission has not implemented other important safeguards, such as establishing an international oversight board to investigate reports of irregularities.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said his organization has recorded a large increase in intimidation by the Taliban of voters and candidates, especially women, as well as threats from warlords who have propped up handpicked candidates against weaker rivals.

Compared with the presidential election last summer, Nadery said, "the coming elections will be much more challenging in terms of security, in terms of conditions on a very local level. Attempts to buy and persuade electoral employees favoring this and that candidate will be much more, but there are not many more prevention mechanisms."

Candidates speak of the Taliban warning men at mosques to stay away from the polls; of corrupt local officials selling voter identification cards in bulk to the highest-paying candidates; and of violent intimidation by insurgents.

Daoud Sultanzoy, running for reelection from the Ajristan area of the violent Ghazni province, said his cousin, who has six children, was dragged from his house and shot three times in the head because he was related to Sultanzoy.

Sultanzoy has spent just two days in his home district in the past three years, and he is too scared to campaign there.

"It is impossible. I'm sitting here," he said in his rented home in Kabul. "I haven't even printed my posters yet. How can I go there to put them up?"

In Ghazni, 107 of the 349 polling stations will be closed, election officials said. Sayed Ismail Jahangir, a spokesman for Musa Khan Akbarzada, the provincial governor, said candidates could request security guards from the Afghan police and army. On election day, he added, Polish and American troops have promised to help secure the province.

Told of Sultanzoy's fear, Jahangir suggested he avoid Ajristan (pop. 85,000) and campaign in safer areas.

"We have 82 people running for office and 13 are women," he said. "Their campaigns are going on every day in Ghazni province."

Despite security concerns, there is no shortage of candidates. All told, 2,556 people are running for the 249 lower house seats, including 406 female candidates competing for 68 seats reserved for women, according to the election commission. In Kabul alone, the ballot will span eight pages, officials said. Some observers have complained that many candidates are warlords, drug traffickers and other criminals.

Fereshta Afghan decided to run for office this year in Kandahar after being threatened three times by the Taliban to quit her job working for a Japanese development agency. She resigned and moved to Kabul but is working to win support from Kandahar's women, youth and disabled.

She said another candidate gave her some advice: "He said if I can't get a loan, I should sell all my jewelry and hire a security guard."

As for Pashtoon, he is resigned to limited voter participation in his power base.

"People ask themselves, 'Why should I kill myself just to put Khalid Pashtoon in office?' " he said. "I wouldn't do it."

Special correspondent Quadratullah Andar contributed to this report.

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