An Afghan national flag flies in the Bibi Mahru Hill area of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photographer: Jim Huylebroek/Bloomberg)

Afghans Vote in Defiance of Taliban Threats and Poll Delays

(Bloomberg) -- Afghans are voting on Saturday in long-delayed parliamentary elections that have been marred by a spate of high-profile Taliban attacks and intimidation.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani kicked off elections at 7 a.m local time by casting his ballot even as polling in some other booths in the country’s capital, Kabul, was delayed by hours due to malfunctioning biometric devices and a lack of election officials and materials. While Ghani praised the government’s efforts in a televised speech saying the polling had been “greatly successful," the election commission apologized for the delays citizens faced.

Afghans Vote in Defiance of Taliban Threats and Poll Delays

Election Commission Chief Abdul Baqi Sayyad told reporters the body was considering extending the elections into Sunday for those polling stations that have not yet opened. The commission will take a final decision later this afternoon, he said.

After a three-year postponement due to widespread violence across the country, Taliban territorial gains and technical problems at Afghanistan’s election agency, voters have had to endure widespread threats to choose lawmakers.

Afghans Vote in Defiance of Taliban Threats and Poll Delays

“I have come to defy Taliban threats by casting a vote that can determine my country’s future,” said Sayed Naqib, a 22-year-old university student, waiting in a queue at a polling station in the western part of Kabul. “I expect that my vote will heal our broken country.”

Police Killed

The elections come just two days after the police chief of Kandahar province, Abdul Raziq, was killed by a security guard. Kandahar’s intelligence chief was also gunned down after a meeting in which General Austin Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was present. Miller emerged unscathed, but Kandahar’s Governor Zalmay Weesa and two American soldiers were wounded in the shooting, which was claimed by the Taliban.

Afghans Vote in Defiance of Taliban Threats and Poll Delays

The assault is a sign of the insecurity across Afghanistan. The Taliban has vowed to block the election and following Thursday’s attack the president decided to delay the vote in Kandahar by a week. Since 2001, when the Taliban were ousted in a U.S. invasion, elections in Afghanistan have been repeatedly tainted by violence, widespread ballot-stuffing and delays. A discredited process could prompt a fresh crisis in the country.

For those who did show up to vote despite the Taliban threat, poll booth delays only added to their list of frustrations. “I don’t know what to call this election,” said Ahmad Najib, a 25-year-old voter who left the polling station after waiting hours for it to open.

Afghans Vote in Defiance of Taliban Threats and Poll Delays

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who shares power with Ghani, told an audience in New York last month that pulling off the parliamentary vote will be “challenging.” The poll is a “test run for the more consequential presidential elections” in April 2019, said Waheed Mujhda, a Kabul-based political analyst. If these elections are affected by fraud and violence it will “complicate and may delay” the presidential vote, he said.

The delayed vote comes as the U.S. pursues negotiations with the Taliban’s leadership through the group’s political office in the Qatari capital, Doha. This month Taliban leaders met with a U.S. delegation headed by the country’s special envoy on Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, to discuss the prospect of ending the U.S.’s longest war through peace talks.

Afghans Vote in Defiance of Taliban Threats and Poll Delays

Around 8.8 million people -- of which 32 percent are women -- are registered to vote. Elections won’t take place in the volatile province of Ghazni until next year. The Taliban had briefly taken over the provincial capital in August.

“Our country is facing lots of problems -- no jobs, Taliban violence, which has ruined Afghanistan, and many others,” said Jawid Nesari, a 25-year-old Kabul University student. “We’re still hopeful for a real change through our vote.”

Diverse Candidates

Afghans Vote in Defiance of Taliban Threats and Poll Delays

More than 2,500 candidates, including 400 women, are competing for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament. The candidates range from conservative politicians, businessmen and young aspirants. About ten candidates have been killed in the past two weeks while campaigning.

Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry said today it added 20,000 additional forces to the 54,000 Afghan security personnel already deployed to protect 5,100 polling centers across the country. One-third of the polling centers, mostly in the remote areas, will remain shut due to increasing Taliban threats, according to the United Nations.

Despite the security personnel, two policemen were wounded today while trying to defuse an improvised explosive device near a polling station in Kabul, while two voters were also wounded in a separate IED attack, the city’s police spokesman Basir Mujahed said in a phone interview. The results are expected to be announced on Nov. 10.

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