Candidates kidnapped on eve of Afghan elections

Militants kidnapped two parliamentary candidates and 18 election workers ahead of today's parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in the latest sign that the vote will be marked by bloodshed and intimidation.

Reports of violence across the country, government seizures of fake voter cards and observer accreditation badges, and the closure of polling stations deemed too insecure added to a gloomy prognosis for the ballot, which election officials hope will not be a repeat of last year's disastrous presidential ballot.

The Taliban have stepped up their intimidation campaign in recent days, posting threatening messages in "night letters" to hundreds of mosques across the country, promising punishment for anyone caught voting and warning of a tide of violence.

They claimed responsibility for abducting parliamentary candidate Abdul Rahman Hayat, and they were also blamed for kidnapping a second candidate's 10 campaign workers and eight election officials.

The rebels have already killed three candidates, and observers say at least 21 people have been killed in election-related violence ahead of the vote.

Although the results of the vote will have no immediate impact on the Nato mission to Afghanistan, attacks against the poll will offer an indication of how strong the Taliban insurgency is, and any evidence of electoral fraud will highlight government corruption.

"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 UN envoy to Afghanistan, in an attempt to lower expectations. He said that a turnout of between five and seven million people, out of roughly 11.4 million registered voters, would constitute a success.

But many potential voters are deeply disillusioned following last year's fraud-riddled presidential vote, and disgusted at the corruption within Afghanistan's political class. "I heard that thousands of fake voting cards have been discovered. This means there will be fraud and good people will not be elected," said Mohammed Zaman, a 38-year-old Kabul carpenter. "I don't want to endanger my life for a election in which there will be fraud."

"Democracy, what's that?" said Darya Khan, a 40-year-old driver. "I'm not going to vote, the people who get elected are just in it for themselves. They are not working to benefit the country, they are not thinking about the poor."

President Hamid Karzai himself warned that: "In Afghanistan under the circumstances we must expect there'll be irregularities, there'll be problems and allegations as well."

In Helmand province, where 9,500 British troops are deployed, officials said they had closed eight polling stations. Of the 138 polling stations there, 129 will open today. A total of 5,816 polling centres nationwide will open, but election officials said around 1,000 will not because they cannot be secured. Around 150,000 foreign troops and 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police will try to thwart the insurgents.

Richard Holbrooke, Washington's envoy to Afghanistan, conceded that the election would not be perfect. "You'll want to look at how much the Taliban are able to disrupt the ballot," he said. NATO's senior civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, said; "They [the Taliban] talk about the purpose of their insurgency being to get rid of international forces. Well, these elections are not about the international forces. These elections are about the Afghans themselves."

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