Election campaigning in Kandahar? Don't leave the house

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 16, 2010 

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Candidates in Saturday's parliamentary election in Afghanistan's second-biggest city don't hold rallies. They don't even leave their homes or hotel rooms. In the face of Taliban assassinations, it's just too dangerous for them to venture out.

The specter of violence and fraud hangs over the election in Kandahar, as it does elsewhere in Afghanistan. Many anticipate that the Taliban will use polling day for attacks, and that the authorities will repeat the ballot-stuffing in last year's presidential election.

"I haven't been outside (my house) for the last 12 days," said Khalid Pashtoon, an English-speaking Westernized candidate who spent years living in the U.S. and is a member of the outgoing parliament. "I don't even know what's going on outside."

The U.S.-led coalition claims that security in Kandahar province has improved, the result of a major operation launched earlier this year. However, it remains a perilous place.

Thursday, the Kandahar morgue released the bodies of three policemen who'd been ambushed in nearby Arghandab district earlier in the week and the corpse of a civilian whom the Taliban had hanged over the weekend, also in Arghandab — his two companions are still missing.

In northern Balkh province, two employees of the Independent Election Commission were shot dead, the United Nations mission said. This brought to 14 the number of candidates, campaign staff and election workers who've been killed in the run-up to the polls.

"No one is holding any rallies," Pashtoon told McClatchy. "Some candidates don't have a campaign office. Some are working from a hotel room. Some don't even dare put up posters." He said that on about eight occasions, Afghan intelligence agencies and foreign diplomats had passed on information about assassination plots over the election period.

About 50 contestants, including 10 women, are vying across Kandahar province for its 11 open seats in the 249-seat lower house, and all of them ought to be campaigning across the province's 17 districts. Yet they can't even venture out in the provincial capital. They rely instead on tribal ties and getting their message out via posters, TV and radio advertisements and, crucially, elders who advocate on their behalf in the countryside.

The Kandahar city home of Pashtoon, who's from the large Barakzai tribe, was filled Thursday with elders from the rural areas in long beards and flowing turbans who'd come to report on the situation in the hinterlands and get a campaign pitch to take home, along with some "expenses" for their trouble.

Many candidates anticipate the worst from the government led nationally by President Hamid Karzai, whose brother Ahmed Wali Karzai heads the provincial council in Kandahar.

"We are preparing for an election, and many people on the government side are preparing for fraud and cheating the people," said Nur ul-Haq Ulumi, the head of the Hezb-e Muttahed-e Melli, or National United Party, one of just 31 candidates in the election who officially are running on party tickets. "Our government doesn't believe in democracy. The parliament just looks like a tribal gathering."

Ulumi, a former army general in the communist regime of the 1980s, had collected a long list of private houses in the province that he said were designated polling stations — which would be easy places from which to conduct electoral fraud — including 11 houses in Spin Boldak district, seven in Daman and three in Naish.

"When an operation is going on, when people are being injured, killed, how can people go out and vote in an election?" Ulumi asked.

McClatchy had no independent confirmation of his list.

Ranna Tarin, the provincial administrator of the Women's Affairs Ministry, is standing again for parliament, even though she said she was cheated in the last polls when a rival female candidate bought votes by giving a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV "and dollars" to a provincial election official.

"Five years ago, there was better security, and they stole my votes," Tarin said. "I am more worried about this time."

Khan Muhammad Mujahid's candidacy in Kandahar appears to pose a direct challenge to the Taliban. A mujahedeen fighter against the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, he turned against the Taliban movement as soon as it emerged in 1994, when he was deputy army corps commander in Kandahar — unlike his boss Mullah Naqib, who submitted to the Taliban.

"I spend 30 years serving the people of Kandahar. I was a well-known mujahid commander. I'm sure people in every district will recognize that and vote for me," Mujahid said. "If the government gave me the power, I could clean out the Taliban in three months."

It takes about $100,000 to mount a serious campaign, and two big names in Kandahar are reckoned to be spending $1 million each, said one candidate, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Kandahar is President Karzai's hometown, and one of the candidates for office is his cousin Hashmat Karzai, who runs a large security-contracting firm but reportedly claims not to be in the president's camp. Many think that candidates close to Ahmed Wali Karzai, who's accused of drug trafficking and of orchestrating some of the fraud in the presidential election, stand a much better chance of getting elected. He's said to favor about 10 of the Kandahar candidates.

"I'm not allied to any candidate. I want good people to come to parliament," Ahmed Wali Karzai said Thursday in Kandahar. "We're trying to have a transparent election. The whole world is watching this election."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay in Kabul and special correspondent Muhib Habibi in Kandahar contributed to this article.)

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