Little hope for peace as Afghans prepare for weekend vote

Kabul (AFP) –

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Afghans go to the polls Saturday to vote in a presidential election that few expect will have much effect in bringing peace to the war-torn country.

With the Taliban threatening violence against anyone who participates, and concern that the widespread fraud which blighted previous elections will resurface, analysts fear a low turnout will seriously undermine the result.

"The security threats, coupled with a trust issue in the election's transparency, may translate into a very low turnout," Afghanistan analyst Ahmad Saeedi told AFP ahead of the vote.

"That would undermine the legitimacy of the election process and any future government that may come out of it."

The stakes are high.

Whatever the turnout, Afghans are choosing a leader who will almost certainly have to negotiate with the Taliban at some point -- even though the hardline Islamist group is doing everything it can to undermine the process.

Eighteen names were originally on the ballot, but the poll is considered a two-horse race between current President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the country's chief executive.

Both claimed victory in the 2014 election -- a vote so tainted by fraud and violence that it led to a constitutional crisis and forced then-US President Barack Obama to push for a compromise that saw Abdullah awarded the subordinate role.

Five years of bitter rivalry later, the parallels are unsettling, yet nothing suggests President Donald Trump would be willing to play such a role in any fresh disputes.

In fact, analysts suggest the new Washington administration has largely undermined the Afghan government by excluding Kabul from months of talks it held with the Taliban in a bid to extract US forces from America's longest-running war.

- Agreement seemed imminent -

The Taliban have also refused to negotiate with Ghani -- whom they consider a Washington puppet -- and he was totally marginalised during negotiations.

An agreement between the Taliban and Washington seemed imminent less than a month ago and observers thought the election could be suspended yet again to allow for the implementation of the withdrawal plan, even as Ghani insisted it must go ahead.

Ultimately, Trump scuppered the deal at the last moment.

That decision boosted what has been a fairly lacklustre election campaign, strengthening Ghani's argument the winner needs a strong mandate to negotiate with the Taliban to finally achieve a lasting peace.

But a low turnout is still a more likely result.

With the Taliban controlling or influencing vast swathes of Afghanistan, it was impossible to hold rallies in many parts of the country.

Campaigning was also hampered by violence from the first day, when Ghani's running mate was targeted in a bomb-and-gun attack that left at least 20 dead.

More than 1,300 civilians were killed in the country in the first half of 2019, according to the UN.

Logistically, authorities plan to open almost 5,000 polling stations -- 500 more were abandoned because of a lack of security.

The interior ministry says 72,000 forces will help to secure polling stations.

Election officials say this will be one the cleanest election yet held, having gone the distance with equipment such as biometric fingerprint readers and better training for poll workers to ensure the vote is fair.

Still, the US embassy in Kabul has said it is "disturbed by so many complaints about security, lack of an equal playing field and fraud".

Some 9.6 million Afghans are registered to vote, but many have lost any hope that after 18 years of war that any leader can unify the fractious country and improve basic living conditions, boost the stagnating economy or bolster security.

"It is very likely that I do not vote," 29-year-old Jawad Zawulistani told AFP.

"I have lost hope that my vote will be of any importance and the result of election would bring any change to my life and to my people's lives."

Results are not expected until October 19. Candidates need more than 50 percent of the vote to be declared outright winner, or else the top two will head for a second round in November.