Will Afghans defy Taliban and flock to the ballot box?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

West fears over low turnout in Pashtun belt after brutal campaign of intimidation

Afghanistan goes to the polls today amid fears that the outcome will be distorted by low turnout caused by violence and intimidation. After eight years of war, the landmark presidential poll could redefine Britain's military mission there, but the Taliban have already shown that they are still in control of huge swathes of countryside.

Large numbers of voters in the southern Pashtun belt, which holds the key to the result in what looks increasingly like a tight race, may fail to turn out to vote because of Taliban threats.

Islamist insurgents, who have vowed to disrupt the ballot, blocked the roads in and out of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province yesterday in a show of strength.

Despite a massive British operation just outside the city, traffic in and out was down by more than 80 per cent as word of roadblocks and explosives kept people in their homes.

Travellers reaching Lashkar Gah from the south had "permission slips" signed by insurgent commanders, to let them through a series of impromptu checkpoints.

Rahmatullah, 43, said: "The Taliban told everyone, all the traffic, all the cars: 'You are not allowed to leave Marja'. They said: 'If you go to Lashkar Gah you will vote in the elections. We won't let you.'"

The Afghan capital Kabul came under attack again yesterday, following Tuesday's suicide bombing . In the latest assault three gunmen stormed a bank and engaged in a protracted firefight with police. The Taliban also warned that 20 suicide bombers had infiltrated the capital and were preparing attacks.

The intimidation in the south is bad news for President Hamid Karzai who is relying on votes from ethnic Pashtuns to win a second term. According to the latest set of opinion polls, he is on track for around 45 per cent of the vote. But he will need his Pashtun constituency to bring him up to 50 per cent for an outright victory. Failure to do so would mean an attritional second round battle with huge security implications.

The Helmand provincial governor, Gulal Mangal, yesterday said he hoped 75 per cent of the province's 800,000 people would vote. But privately, his staff were more realistic. "We'll be lucky if we get 200,000," said a senior official.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, yesterday urged a vote in which all eligible Afghans would be able to take part. However, the danger of staging an election in a country at war was underlined by the announcement that its largest vote monitoring mission will not be coming to Nad-e-Ali, the most populated area in Helmand as it will be too dangerous.

Habibullah Khan, the district governor at Nad-e-Ali, admitted that most people in his district will not turn up to vote. "They are scared. The Taliban tell them they will cut off their heads, or their hands if they vote, and people do not want to take the risk," he said, sitting in his office in front of a Dushka machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

"The Taliban have been warning people not to travel; not to go to work; not to open their shops on election day. They have laid mines on roads, they have threatened people and unfortunately this is likely to work."

Afghanistan's independent election commission had planned to open 222 polling stations in Helmand. This has been revised down to 107.

Observers fear the election result will almost certainly also lead to recriminations over rampant fraud. There have been repeated tales of bogus voter registrations, blank ballot papers being sold in the bazaars, and tribal leaders being bribed to deliver block votes.

A failure to hire anything like enough female election officers also means that vast numbers of women will not be able to vote.

Abdullah Abdullah, the President's leading challenger, has warned that any evidence of vote-rigging in favour of President Karzai will lead to Iran-style public protest. "If we find that there has been rigging we shall have something similar to what happened in Iran, but here it will be much more serious", said Mr Abdullah's running mate, Hukamyun Shah Asifi.

Mohammed Yaqub insisted he will be going to the polls despite the threats. "I will vote, and I will vote for Karzai because he has been president for five years and he has the experience," he said. "But I do know that a lot of my family members and neighbours will be staying away. They want to vote, but they are afraid."

The pressure is in evidence across the south. In Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban, leaflets have been distributed in the name of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," declaring vengeance against those who vote.

In Kajaki, where British troops are helping on a project which will provide electricity, the Taliban has set up a radio station which broadcasts repeated warnings against voting. In Zabul insurgent commanders have commandeered mosques to threaten dire consequences for the election process.

Mahmood Mirza, a 35-year-old farm labourer from Kajaki, said "The Taliban say they have prepared 200 suicide bombers to attack polling stations on election day. Now people are scared and they won't take part in this. I will not vote and I will not leave my home on the day of the elections."

Two men, however, insisted they were extremely keen to play their part in the electoral process. Niamtullah Khan, 28, said: "I would vote for Karzai because I think he is a strong leader. I am not worried about these threats." His companion, Safi Iqlas, added: "I would vote the way my community elders tell me to do. But yes, I will definitely vote."

Neither man will be allowed to vote, however, as they are inmates of Nad-e-Ali jail. The pair were captured by British troops three days ago as Taliban suspects. The jail is being used as a polling station.

The tent man and other lesser-known candidates

He lives on a frugal diet to show solidarity with the poorer ranks of Afghan society, eschewing meat and soft drinks. He has no armed bodyguards, no spin machine and uses a tent as his political office.

Ramazan Bashardost is certainly not your typical Afghan presidential candidate, but the 48-year-old could find himself a kingmaker if today's election fails to deliver a decisive result and a run-off is needed. Opinion polls put Mr Bashardost, who resigned from Hamid Karzai's government and is running on an anti-corruption platform, in third place with 10 per cent of the vote.

Following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Mr Bashardost, an ethnic Hazara, returned to Afghanistan from France, where he had been studying. He served briefly as planning minister in Mr Karzai's first administration and was critical of the role played by foreign non-governmental organisations, saying their staff salaries were draining money that should have gone to the Afghan people.

The three best-known candidates outside Afghanistan are of course the incumbent president, Mr Karzai, who was polling at 44 per cent; the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah (26 per cent); and World Bank technocrat Ashraf Ghani (6 per cent).

But there are 31 names on the ballot paper in today's poll. These include Muhammad Rahmani, a retired air force colonel, who now works as a caretaker and has been campaigning by bicycle around Kabul and whose former military pals have clubbed together to get campaign photos done.

There are only two women bidding to lead their country, one of of whom is Frozan Fana. The 40-year-old orthopedic surgeon is running in memory of her husband, Abdul Rahman, who was murdered in 2002 when he was minister for civil aviation in Mr Karzai's first cabinet.

The Afghan vote in numbers

15 million Afghans have registered to vote in today's election at 7,000 polling stations but the Taliban have vowed to disrupt the vote.

$220 million How much donors have given to help the Afghan Independent Election Commission organise the ballot.

100,000 Number of Western forces in country, including 63,000 Americans and 9,000 Brits. They, and 90,000 Afghan soldiers, will provide security.

44 per cent The proportion of Afghans intending to vote for Hamid Karzai, according to the latest opinion poll.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
i100
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Arts and Entertainment
A shared vision: Cerys Matthews has been familiarising herself with Dylan Thomas’s material, for a revealing radio programme
arts + entsA singer, her uncle and a special relationship with Dylan Thomas
News
In other news ... Jon Snow performed at last year's Newsroom's Got Talent charity event
people
News
i100
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?