KABUL — On Friday, Mohammad Jawad Qasemi, an unemployed computer technician, gathered with his family and friends to read from the Koran. They decided that all those over 18, both women and men, would sign up on Sunday to vote in parliamentary elections this October.

Qasemi, 37, accompanied four women from the group to apply for voter ID cards in Dasht-i-Barchi, a district heavily populated by Shiites and ethnic Hazaras like them. His wife stayed home with their six children, and he planned to register on her behalf.

Just before noon, they were standing in line outside the election center when a suicide bomber detonated explosives. The blast, claimed by the Islamic State, killed all five, along with 55 others, and left 129 survivors with burns and shrapnel wounds. By Monday evening, Qasemi and the women had been buried in a graveyard in the shell-shocked community.

“Everyone in the cemetery was weeping,” his cousin Mohammad Zahir Ahmadi, 43, said. “The terrorists do not want us to vote.”

The bombing — the deadliest in a spate of scattered attacks on election sites and officials since the nationwide voter ID process began April 14 — has violently upended both lives and political calculus as the nation lurches toward legislative elections this fall, or possibly later. For the first time, some in the usually defiant Shiite Hazara community are expressing doubts about participating in elections.

“Hazaras are peace lovers, and we have pens in our hands, not weapons,” Ahmadi said. “But this attack will have a negative effect on our participation in the election.” 

The need to protect voters, evidently vulnerable in major cities as well as rural areas, must now be weighed against the need to hold elections that have been repeatedly delayed since 2015. If fear leads to a very low turnout in certain areas, the legitimacy of the result may be questioned — as it has in the past several fraud-plagued national elections.

“There is a trade-off between time, quality and participation,” Scott Worden, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said Monday. “Given past problems with fraud and unequal election turnout, the election authorities would be wise to allow more time to coordinate security, voter outreach and registration.” 

This time, Worden said, it is crucial that the elections be “perceived as credible — even if it results in further delays.”

Afghan observers noted that while terrorist attacks have yet to cause a serious rift between the country’s Sunni majority and Shiite minority, continued insurgent violence could deepen mistrust and provoke conflict in rural areas where several ethnic groups will compete for votes. 

A suicide bomber killed at least 57 Afghans outside a voter registration center in Kabul on April 22. (Reuters)

“If we cannot secure registration centers and sites that issue national IDs in Kabul, how can we encourage people to come out to register and vote in remote districts which are unsafe?” asked Mohammad Ajmal Hodmand, president of the national lawyers’ association. On the other hand, he said, failing to hold elections “will deepen the crisis and raise questions about the legitimacy of the entire system.”

In addition to the bombing in Kabul, in the past week there have been half a dozen attacks on voter ID registration sites in rural provinces. In western Badghis province, two registration sites were attacked, resulting in several deaths and injuries of soldiers and police assigned to protect the sites. In both cases, local officials said the attackers were Taliban fighters. 

“The turnout of people in Badghis is very, very low, I’m afraid,” said Sayed Mohammad Musa, a legislator there who plans to run for reelection. He said he had decided to risk campaigning because he comes from a respected religious family “and I have big numbers of armed men to protect me.”

There has been some speculation that President Ashraf Ghani, who intends to seek reelection, wants to use the excuse of insecurity to delay presidential elections next year and extend his term via a religious or tribal endorsement. Ghani has strongly denied this, stating recently that holding elections is his “top priority” and that Afghanistan “can only be governed democratically.”

Until now, Kabul’s community of Shiite Hazaras has been one of the most enthusiastic and well-organized sources of support for electoral democracy. It has a large, well-educated population of young people who have held peaceful rallies demanding more rights. The community has seen politics as a means to gain influence in a society where Hazaras have long faced discrimination.

But the community has also been targeted ruthlessly by insurgents, especially the Islamic State, the radical Sunni militia that has bombed and attacked a number of mosques and other sites in Dasht-i-Barchi and nearby areas. Now, some are no longer sure voting is worth the risk.

Among them is Hussain Ahmadi, 40, a shopkeeper who said he has voted in all previous elections but changed his mind after the attack, which occurred a few hundred yards from his shop. He said he and his neighbors rushed to the scene and helped evacuate dozens of victims to hospitals — including his own sister.

“When you see a fire, would you jump into it?” Ahmadi asked. In the Hazara community, he predicted, “not a single person will vote.”