Afghanistan at crossroads as election season kicks off

Ghani is gunning for a second-term as Afghanistan President (Reuters File Photo)

After months of delays and political bickering, Afghanistan is preparing for presidential elections with a risk of more of the bloodshed and fraud allegations that have marred previous polls.

Campaign season begins in earnest Sunday, exactly two months ahead of the poll when 17 hopefuls will try to beat President Ashraf Ghani as he seeks a second term.

The cast of contenders, all men, includes a former warlord accused of killing thousands, the brother of a mujahideen icon, and a bitter rival seeking retribution.

This year's election comes at a crucial moment. The Taliban, who are not taking part, think they are on the verge of beating the United States after nearly 18 years of war.

The US is negotiating for a deal that would see foreign forces pull out of the country in return for various Taliban security guarantees, including a pledge that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terror groups.

Washington wants a deal by September 1, but this is unlikely given the complexities and sticking points involved.

This means Afghanistan's next president must figure out how to deal with the Taliban, who steadfastly have refused to negotiate with the Kabul government.

It is unclear what a final peace settlement could look like.

Everything, potentially, could be up for grabs- women's rights, personal freedoms, the constitution itself.

Many Afghans fear a quick return to Taliban rule or a spiralling civil war, issues the next president could face early on.

Other considerations, including Afghanistan's lacklustre economy and entrenched corruption, will likely take a back seat to the pressing security situation.

The September 28 election may only be the first step. Unless a candidate wins a majority, voting will go to a second round, probably in late November.

One crucial issue is that the elections happen at all.

They have already been postponed twice this year and further delays could lead to more unrest, as Ghani's rivals are furious about the unexpected extension to his term.

Some observers have said this year's electoral delays were to make room for US-Taliban talks, but more likely it was down to bungling by election officials.

According to electoral authorities, some nine million people have registered to vote. But allegations persist that some of those are "ghost" voters.

In an early sign of how contentious things could get, some candidates have already threatened to boycott the election because they say Ghani is using his position to gain an unfair advantage.

Top among Ghani's rivals is Abdullah Abdullah, currently serving as the president's own chief executive under an awkward power-sharing arrangement brokered by the US after the fraud-tinged 2014 election.

Abdullah, who also lost against Hamid Karzai in 2009, has a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother, so is likely to draw support from both groups -- a key factor in a nation riven by regional and ethnic rivalries.

Ghani, a Pashtun, appears to have also learned the importance of an inclusive cabinet with all the main Afghan ethnicities -- and women. Observers say the race is his to lose.

Another frontrunner is Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Ghani's former national security advisor, and the former interior minister under Karzai.

Other contenders include Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord accused of war crimes and British-educated Ahmad Wali Massoud, the brother of legendary anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Many are despondent about the prospects of a fair election, and worry about a repeat of the sort of violent attacks on previous polls by the Taliban and other insurgent groups trying to undermine Afghanistan's fragile democracy.

The parliamentary elections last October were plagued with problems with voting machines, voter registrations and allegations of ballot stuffing.

"I cast my votes in two previous elections, but our votes were not counted. This time I am not keen to vote because the result will be fraudulent again," 30-year-old Mohammad Daud said.

"We have braved the Taliban and Islamic State attacks during elections, but the election results have once again disappointed us.

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