Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged citizens to vote in Saturday’s parliamentary election despite fears of violence and threats from the Taliban warning people not to leave their homes.
Police set up extra checkpoints across Afghanistan on Friday to search for suicide bombers and insurgents ahead of the election that will test the government’s ability to hold legitimate elections after last year’s disastrous presidential vote.
“Tomorrow’s election is very important,” Mr. Karzai told reporters. “I hope that all our people in all corners of the country, in any village will go to the polling centres and to vote for their favourite candidate.”
The international coalition supporting Afghanistan with 140,000 troops and billions of dollars will be watching to see if the election will be safe and fair and not a repeat of the fraud—marred presidential vote in August 2009 that nearly undermined Mr. Karzai’s credibility with his international backers.
About 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 parliamentary seats allocated among the 34 provinces according to population.
Results of the voting for the relatively weak legislature are unlikely to affect Mr. Karzai’s administration. However, the elections will be an indicator of the strength of the insurgency as NATO and Afghan forces work to secure polling stations in volatile areas.
Taliban threats, some announced to reporters, some whispered in mosques, some written on leaflets left around town, have increased in the days leading up to the vote, even as the insurgent group has reportedly quietly backed candidates in some provinces.
NATO’s senior civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, said the Taliban face a dilemma.
“They talk about the purpose of their insurgency being to get rid of international forces from the country,” Mr. Sedwill said. “Well, these elections are not about the international forces. These elections are about the Afghans themselves.”
In the eastern province of Khost, police said mosques were blanketed with leaflets overnight promising a violent vote.
“The people of Khost should not go to the voting centres. If anyone goes, we will punish them,” the notes said, according to provincial police Chief Abdul Hakim Isaqzai.
The same message was written on leaflets the Taliban were passing out in Kandahar.
Asked what message he wanted to give to the Taliban, Mr. Karzai replied- “Those Taliban, who are sons of Afghanistan, are Muslim. They should serve their country and participate, and build their country and build stability.”
Afghan security forces patrolled the mountains and hills that circle Kabul to prevent insurgents from setting up rocket—firing points, Deputy Police Chief Khalilullah Dastyar said. Police used bomb—sniffing dogs while searching every car heading along main roads into the city.
“Also at all the voting centres, police are already deployed,” Mr. Dastyar said.
The streets were relatively empty as is typical for a Friday, which is not a working day in Afghanistan.
In volatile Kunar province in the northeast, police said they have not been able to deploy soldiers to remote areas but have set up checkpoints on the roads into the provincial capital. They are stopping vehicles and questioning anyone wearing a burqa, the full—body robe often worn by Afghan women in conservative areas. Insurgents previously have hidden under burqas to get past checkpoints.
“We are talking to anyone with a burqa to make sure it’s actually a woman,” said Khalilullah Zaiyi, the provincial police chief.
With a raging insurgency, hardly anyone is predicting a fully free and fair vote.
“This is probably one of the worst places and the worst times to have an election anywhere in the world. We have to put it into perspective,” said Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.
“We don’t expect a fair and transparent election. What we expect is an acceptable election,” said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies, a Kabul—based think tank.
The hope is that Afghans and the international community will be able to proclaim it an improvement over the August 2009 presidential vote, when a U.N.—backed watchdog group found rampant fraud in Mr. Karzai’s re—election.
Violence already has been a problem in the run—up to Saturday’s vote. At least 21 people have been killed in election—related violence, including four candidates, according to observer groups.
On Thursday, 18 election workers were kidnapped from a house in Badghis province, said provincial government spokesman Sharafuddin Majidi. He said local residents told the government that the workers had been taken by the Taliban. Further details were not available.
In the eastern province of Ghazni, a Taliban operative told The Associated Press that the group had warned residents they would be targeted if they left their homes or opened shops anytime Saturday or Sunday.
Also in the east, NATO said on Friday that coalition forces detained two insurgents in Khost province, including one who was “actively” planning attacks during the elections. In the south, NATO reported that two coalition service members died Friday following insurgent attacks. The service members’ nationalities was not disclosed.