A full-page, public service ad on the back page of an Afghan newspaper shows three photographs with forbidding red crosses across each of them.
The first depicts a man accepting money for a ballot, the second shows a man pointing a gun at another man and the third shows a man with one voter registration card in one hand and several in the other.
The ad, paid for by the Afghan Election Commission, tackles the three main fears of election officials as Afghanistan heads to the polls Thursday in a critical round of presidential and provincial council elections.
The pictorial message, targeted specifically at uneducated Afghans, is clear: don't sell your vote, don't be intimidated into voting for someone, and use only one voter registration card.
A voter registration card for Britney Spears
The last image in the ad refers to widespread flaws in the voter registration, which saw impossibly high numbers. In some districts in the conservative Pashtun belt for instance, more women were registered than the total count of female residents.
Voter registration cards could be bought in local bazaars across the country at various prices. The capital of Kabul had the steepest prices on the voter registration market, with a single card fetching $10. Accountability standards were so low that one intrepid Afghan managed to snag himself a card with an identity photograph of pop star Britney Spears.
While the Afghan Election Commission distributed 17 million cards, analysts believe the real number of eligible voters ranges from anywhere between 13 to 15 million.
Setting the bar low
On the eve of this violence-ridden country's second round of voting since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, expectations are measured.
Anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan notes that just holding an election in this violence-wracked country is a sheer manifestation of democratic will.
Despite tight security measures, there was an attack on a local bank in Kabul Wednesday morning. Gunfire was heard from the building, where security forces reportedly shot dead the three attackers.
For the elections though, the problem is that if the bar is placed too low, there could be serious questions over the legitimacy of the Aug. 20 polls.
The security situation, especially in the insurgency-hit southern and south-eastern regions, is so bleak that Afghan election officials admit that eight out of the total 364 districts in the country are outside state control. In fact, 12 percent of voting stations will not open on election day.
The lack of security provides a smokescreen to rig the elections, says Thomas Ruttig, a seasoned UN diplomat and co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research and policy institute.
At a press conference in Kabul Tuesday, Ahmad Nader Nadery, head of FEFA (Free and Fair Election Federation of Afghanistan), an independent public awareness and election monitoring group, said observers could monitor only 249 of the 364 districts.
Fears of state interference
The lack of transparency, says Ruttig, increases the chances of ballot stuffing and proxy voting to sway the election in favour of many candidates. But the incumbent is better placed than his opponents to succeed in this operation, Ruttig points out.
In a report on the voter registration process published at the end of July, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) stated that monitoring teams received reports of incidents of state interference in the electoral process, including government officials threatening or harassing opposition candidates and their supporters.
This is particularly troubling in Afghanistan, where the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, has proved adept at getting the support of Afghan political bosses, including some controversial former warlords.
The latest display of Karzai's patronage campaigning came over the weekend, when General Dostum, a deeply reviled former mujahideen leader, was allowed to return home to Afghanistan from Turkey.
A controversial Uzbek warlord accused of human rights violations in northern Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban, Dostum is widely believed to be back in the country to try to secure the Uzbek vote for Karzai.
This year, unlike previous years, counting will be conducted at the polling stations, which means populations in specific areas can directly be linked to voter behaviour, thereby increasing the risk of reprisals for communities who do not vote as they have been told.
In many ways, the 2009 election campaign is seeing a struggle between Afghanistan’s old-style patronage politics and a new approach to campaigning. Opposition candidates, such as former planning minister Ramazan Bashardost and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, are appealing to voters to pay attention to the candidates’ views and proposals rather than their personal associations.