The assassination by the Taliban of a notorious police chief in an important Afghanistan province this week could not have come at a more pivotal moment. On Saturday, parliamentary elections are taking place across the country in a vote that had already been delayed for three years because of security concerns.
Polls opened in much of Afghanistan at 7 a.m. local time (10:30 p.m. Friday ET) and will close at 4 p.m. local time (7:30 a.m. Saturday ET).
Much rests on the vote: Hundreds of women and young people are among candidates standing for election, riding a wave of hope that the notoriously corrupt and inefficient political system in Afghanistan can be overhauled.
But the killing of Gen. Abdul Raziq Achakzai, in an attack that the top US general in Afghanistan survived, has left many uneasy about what voting day may bring. Such is the concern, that authorities have delayed the vote for a week in the southern province of Kandahar, where Thursday’s attack took place.
In the hours following Raziq’s death, the Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the attack, issued another statement warning Afghans not to participate in what they called “an American project from start to finish.”
The Taliban message said the group intended to close all “major and minor roads” throughout the country and urged Afghans to stay indoors. “We do not want to harm any common Afghan and therefore ask the public and especially city dwellers to refrain from participating or casting votes during elections,” it said.
The Taliban had already vowed in a previous statement to target anything to do with the election, which they see as a sham. That statement was followed by warnings sent to students, teachers and religious leaders via messages delivered to the press.
The decision to delay the vote in Kandahar was taken Friday following a security meeting and a proposal from Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy spokesman, wrote on his Facebook page.
Parliamentary candidate Idrees Stanikzai, originally from Kandahar, but running in Kabul, said the attack on Raziq would likely affect turnout in Saturday’s polls. “It had a chilling effect on people all over the country,” he said.
The 28-year-old said he expected people to turn out, but not in as large numbers as had been previously thought.
The impact was visible online as Afghans in the country and the diaspora flooded social media with tributes, poems, pictures and videos of Raziq. Some lionized him on Twitter as a hero, a “true patriot” and “a pillar of stability” for his ability to secure the city of Kandahar and keep the strategically significant province relatively stable despite Taliban gains elsewhere.
After casting his vote Saturday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani thanked law enforcement, election officials and citizens who made the election possible “despite the risks involved.”
“Today we proved together that we uphold democracy. With casting our ballots without fear we honor the sacrifices of the fallen,” he tweeted.
Candidate: ‘We must carry on’
The risks have not deterred more than 2,500 candidates nationwide, including more than 400 women, running for 250 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament.
Among those women is Maryam Samaa, a former journalist and news presenter on the nation’s largest private broadcaster, TOLO TV, who is running for one of Kabul’s 33 parliamentary seats.
When Samaa enters a room where potential observers for her parliamentary campaign — all young men in their early to mid-20s — are gathered, everyone stands to greet her. After a quick exchange of pleasantries, the 26-year-old commands the room.
That scene, of a lone young woman directly addressing a group of young men not far in age from her, is an embodiment of the exact kind of change Samaa, and hundreds of other young Afghans who are running, want to bring to the Afghan legislature.
As for the dangers, Samaa said she relayed a simple message to the people she spoke to during campaigning: “Our presence is our defiance, we must carry on. How long can we live under the shadow of fear and corruption?”
A Helmand candidate for parliament, Abdul Jabar Qahraman, was killed with three others Wednesday by a bomb in his campaign office.
And as a former TOLO reporter, Samaa faces additional danger. According to the Afghanistan Journalist Safety Committee, the first six months of 2018 saw 89 cases of violence and intimidation against journalists, 11 of them fatal.
Women, young people step up as candidates
Samaa is part of a surge in young people who came of age in the post-Communist, post-Taliban era who have nominated themselves. And she is among a group of well-known journalists who have decided to forgo journalism for politics.
Like many other young candidates, Samaa said she decided to run because there are few “actual representatives of the people” in the current parliament. Rather than the house of the people, Sama said, the parliament has become a home for several competing “mafia networks.”
A survey conducted earlier this year by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent research institute based in Kabul, found that only 9.6% of respondents were satisfied with the work of the current parliament.
Throughout the 19-day campaign period, Samaa said, she met thousands of people, and they all said the same thing to her: “Don’t forget us.”
She recalls one family in West Kabul who put it very simply: “You came here today to our house and on our streets, but don’t forget us tomorrow. If we don’t see you again after this, then we will know you are like the people you want to replace.”
When she heard those words, Samaa thought back to her childhood in the western province of Herat, where she started working with local civil society and activist groups at age 12.
“It’s a responsibility every human being must take on,” she said. “Everyone has to question the society around them, why is there so much inequity, and what is my role in reforming that society?”
Samaa takes pride in the fact that her campaign took her door to door to meet the people of Kabul, the city she has called home for four years now.
“I always knew there is poverty and violence in Afghanistan, but going to people’s homes and seeing the conditions they live in, I saw just how deep and pervasive that poverty truly is,” she said.
Voting in these elections can also prove daunting for reasons other than security.
In the province of Kabul there are 804 candidates, including 119 women, vying for 33 seats — resulting in newspaper-style ballot sheets that run more than a dozen pages long.
In a bid to simplify the process, candidates have made sure to list their ballot page and candidate number on all of their advertisements.
As in previous years, the election commission has also assigned graphical icons next to each candidate for voters who lack literacy. In a nation where only 31% of the population is literate, such efforts can help ensure as many people as possible turn out.
Samaa: ‘We have to make the change’
Although 20% of the 250 total seats in the parliament are reserved for women — a quota that has far been exceeded by the 69 female members in the current parliament — running as a woman in Afghanistan presents its own challenges.
“Traditionally, women do not venture out [of the house] and most men can’t accept women in decision-making roles,” said Samaa of her initial trepidations of running as a female candidate.
But, she said, campaigning showed her a different image of men’s attitudes toward women in politics. “I was never rejected, no one said: ‘You are a woman’ and dismissed me,” she said.
The upcoming election has also been subject to claims of fraud. In September, a coalition of former lawmakers and other leaders said they had found evidence of thousands of fraudulent national identification cards and voter registration stickers.
Samaa said many people she spoke to told her of candidates illegally offering thousands of Afghanis — as much as $60 — for votes. In a nation where 54% of people live below the poverty line, those sums could represent major windfalls for some.
There have also been reports of candidates offering anywhere between $100 and $200 for election observers to work on their behalf on election day.
Despite the numerous challenges in her way, Samaa has vowed to carry on, and she hopes other young people will do the same.
“We, the youth, are the majority of this country,” she said. “We have to make the change, because no one else will.”