KABUL — On Saturday, Afghans will vote in the country’s fourth presidential election since Taliban rule ended in 2001. Twice delayed because of security fears, the election comes amid an intense wave of violence fueled in part by the collapse of peace talks between the United States and Taliban leaders earlier this month.

Millions of Afghans are expected to vote, and 9.6 million have registered, but many observers worry that low turnout due to security fears could undermine the vote’s legitimacy and leave the government in a weaker position, no matter who wins. 

The leading candidates: Ashraf Ghani vs. Abdullah Abdullah

Of the 16 candidates running for president, two are clear front-runners: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, 70, and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, 59. The two men are longtime rivals, and for the past five years they have fought bitterly as heads of a power-sharing government.

The two faced off in the last presidential election, in 2014, which went to a second round amid charges of fraud and threatened violence. U.S. officials brokered a power-sharing pact. Previously, in 2009, Abdullah lost an election to then-President Hamid Karzai.

Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister, ran in 2014 on a platform promising economic development. The president’s supporters applaud his efforts to stamp out corruption and his support of Afghan peace talks with the Taliban, but Ghani’s detractors blame him for deteriorating security and widespread joblessness.

Abdullah began his political life as an aide to revered Afghan anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. As an ophthalmologist and later foreign minister, he has spent nearly his entire life in Afghanistan though upheaval and war, a point he emphasizes in contrast to Ghani, who studied abroad and held dual Afghan-U.S. citizenship for many years.

Both candidates are running on platforms that pledge to unite the country and end the bloodshed. But neither candidate has put forward detailed plans for an Afghan peace process or economic development.

How violence is shaping the election

Many fear that Afghanistan’s vote Saturday could be the country’s most violent yet. The Taliban has pledged to meet the election with attacks and is in a more powerful position than at any other time since its ouster.

Already, a string of Taliban attacks over the past week have left dozens of civilians dead. An Afghan journalist died Wednesday from wounds suffered in an explosion near Ghani’s election campaign headquarters in the southern city of Kandahar that killed three others. A suicide bombing outside a campaign rally for Ghani earlier this month killed 26, an attack at an office issuing voter identification documents wounded nine, and a bomb that detonated outside a hospital killed 39.

The Taliban said in a statement following the attacks that it had already warned Afghan civilians to avoid election-related events and offices. “If they suffer any losses that is their own responsibility,” said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.

The U.S.-led war against the Taliban has entered its 19th year, and after peace talks collapsed this month, both the Taliban and the Afghan government vowed to step up attacks. Violence during the first six months of 2019 killed nearly 1,400 civilians in Afghanistan.

A partial vote: 2,400 of 7,400 polls will be closed

The presidential election is a nationwide vote, but voting will take place only in parts of the country controlled by government forces. Just over 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population lives under government control, about 11 percent live under Taliban control, and the remainder live in “contested” territory, according to a January 2019 report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. 

The government has announced that 2,400 of the country’s more than 7,400 polling stations open in previous elections will be shut this year because of security concerns. But some local officials say some of the closures are politically motivated attempts to suppress the opposition vote.

According to the Afghan constitution, a presidential candidate needs more than 50 percent of the vote to be declared the winner. If no candidate meets that threshold, the constitution mandates that a second round of voting must be held within two weeks of the official result. The arrival of winter probably would make a second vote logistically impossible in many of Afghanistan’s remote districts.

Fears of fraud: Vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing

Massive election fraud has been the rule rather than the exception in Afghan elections since the Taliban was removed from power. Afghanistan regularly ranks among the most corrupt nations in the world, and registration practices that resulted in the issuance of millions of duplicate voter identification cards have made it easier to cast fraudulent votes.

Afghanistan’s October parliamentary elections were contested for months, marred by accusations of vote-rigging and bribery. And a European Union report on the 2014 presidential election raised concerns about fraud in about a quarter of all votes cast.

This year, the Afghan government plans to identify registered voters using biometrics such as fingerprint, eye and facial recognition technology. In the past when such technology was introduced, poorly trained polling center staff were unable to operate it.

Abdullah and other government opponents have charged that Ghani is using his public office to buy votes and will try to rig the election. Ghani has denied the charges, and his incumbency gives him a strong advantage in the polls. 

After the election: What happens next?

After a close vote in 2014, Afghanistan was plunged into months of gridlock that narrowly avoided violent confrontations. Although the pact between Ghani and Abdullah achieved a peaceful transition of power, both men blame that arrangement for stalled progress in many areas, and both have said they would not accept a similar compromise again.

Some fear that a heavily contested vote and low turnout could leave the Afghan government in an even weaker position. If U.S.-Taliban talks restart, the next president could be tasked with negotiating a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, in which case a strong mandate would be essential to preserving post-Taliban social gains in Afghanistan.