KABUL — Their faces loom from thousands of gigantic posters strung across the Afghan capital. Some express hopes for youth-driven change, diversity and modernization; others make not-too-subtle appeals for loyalty to an older generation of warlords and ethnic strongmen.
More than 2,500 candidates are running for 249 seats in Afghanistan’s parliament in Saturday’s elections, despite campaign violence that has killed 10 candidates and scores of supporters, Taliban threats to sabotage the polls, accusations of pre-election rigging, and public cynicism after years of legislative vote-buying and obstructionism.
The risks are many, but so are the opportunities, whether to champion reforms or profit from wheeling and dealing. Many candidates have curtailed public events after half a dozen deadly attacks this month, and hundreds of polling places in high-risk districts will not open at all. The campaign, however, is in full swing.
“Please vote! Vote for a clean and modern parliament. Vote to get rid of the mafia. People who buy your vote will sell it later.”
That is the message that Abdul Manan Shiwaisharq, a rumpled academic in his 40s, was repeating into a microphone, between recorded snatches of an old political chant, as he drove through Kabul one recent afternoon in an old Toyota Corolla sedan with a loudspeaker roped to the trunk.
Shiwaisharq stopped at a traffic circle teeming with jobless laborers, got out and started chatting. One grizzled well digger challenged him, saying that all politicians were corrupt and indifferent to the plight of the poor.
“If we vote for you, you will forget your promises and never answer our calls,” the well digger charged.
“I promise, I will answer your calls,” the candidate vowed.
A few miles away, inside a chandelier-lit wedding hall surrounded by armed guards, Baqir Mohaqiq, a clean-cut candidate of 26, described his agenda to promote government reform and social justice. But his speech to several hundred supporters also included a strident appeal to ethnic grievances. He vowed to “defend the rights of my people like a soldier” and was greeted by shouts of “God is great!”
In the streets, hundreds of posters for Mohaqiq left no doubt about who and what he represented. His portrait was flanked by smaller likenesses of two war-hardened elders — his father, Mohammad, a powerful boss of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority; and Abdul Ali Mazari, a legendary Hazara fighter killed by the Taliban in 1995.
Although election officials barred candidates with ties to armed militias or criminal groups, nearly two dozen sons and other relatives of ex-warlords are on ballots and billboards across the country. This effort to put fresh faces on a tarnished past has aroused a mix of derision and fear among voters, and human rights activists said several campaign attacks were probably the work of rival politicians rather than insurgents.
“We are seeing attacks not only on the lives of candidates but on the life of Afghan democracy,” said Mohammad Yousuf Rasheed, executive director of the independent Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan. “This is not all the Taliban’s doing. There are competing interests and clashes over seats. There are efforts to force candidates to withdraw. What will happen on election day if voters get directly targeted?”
Among the candidates in the race are 400 women — an unprecedented number that includes teachers, doctors and activists. Their photos tower above the Kabul skyline, with some of the women wearing makeup and stylish clothes, while others have on modest headscarves. Afghan officials have touted their candidacies as remarkable compared with the last legislative elections in 2009, when no women could be found to run for office in some conservative districts.
Yet several female candidates have been threatened or attacked. One in the northern province of Takhar narrowly survived a bombing that killed eight people at a campaign rally. Another in the northwestern province of Faryab resisted pressure to abandon her campaign, then died in a suspicious car accident.
Women have found greater freedom to campaign in Kabul, but the incidents in rural provinces, as well as reports of low female voter registration there, suggest that women in this traditional society are still far from accepted in political life.
In the latest election-related violence, the Taliban insurgency asserted responsibility for a bombing Wednesday that killed a prominent candidate in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, former general Abdul Jabar Qahraman. Three other people died and seven were wounded in the blast in the courtyard of his campaign headquarters, officials said.
Afghan officials have rejected calls to postpone the legislative elections, which are overdue by several years. They are seen as a crucial step toward holding a presidential election next year and a critical benchmark of progress after 17 years of civilian rule. Thousands of extra security personnel will be sent to protect polling sites Saturday.
The insurgent threat remains grave. The Taliban issued a statement denouncing the elections as “a conspiracy to deceive the people” and benefit “malicious” foreign interests. It said all fighters have been instructed to create “severe obstacles” to voting, while minimizing harm to civilians.
Security officials predict that far worse attacks could come from the foreign-based Islamic State militia, which has killed scores of civilians in bombings in Kabul this year, including an attack on a voter identification center that resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people.
Another worry is the potential for massive fraud, especially the misuse of ballots and voter ID cards. Large quantities of false or extra ID cards have reportedly been distributed, and a costly last-minute effort to install biometric technology at polling stations may not succeed in preventing problems.
“There are fake IDs, forged stickers, and people are not sure about the biometric system’s efficiency,” said Mohaiuddin Mehdi, a literature professor and candidate in Baghlan province. “Our other concern is security. Forty-four districts are under Taliban control, and dozens more are under threat. Illegal armed groups can threaten voters and bully candidates. We are not optimistic.”
Yet despite the risks and flaws, many voters seem genuinely enthusiastic about the chance to elect new, more-honest representatives to legislative positions that have been increasingly dismissed as profitable sinecures for aging warlords and corrupt politicians.
Idrees Stanikzai, 28, a sharply dressed candidate and former officer in the national intelligence agency, envisions himself as a reformer. In an interview, he stressed the need to “clear parliament of warlords,” including the “junior ones.” He added, “Their suits have changed, their ties have changed, but their minds are no different.”
One recent morning, Stanikzai took a stroll through west Kabul near the national university, carrying a stack of booklets. They were copies of the Afghan constitution, with his business card attached. A few students and teachers stopped to chat.
“I hope there are going to be more young people in parliament now,” said Mahmad Farid, 23, an economics student. “We are tired of the old faces. For 40 years, this country has been led by aggressive people. It’s time for soft leaders, people who understand politics and the world.”
Farid took the proffered booklet from Stanikzai, stuck it in his pocket and strode off to class.
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.