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Taliban turn sights on crucial election for Afghan president

IF you think the polls are ­narrowing in the Scottish ­independence referendum, take a look at those for Afghanistan's presidential election.

As the country prepares for its crucial ballot tomorrow there are indicators that the number of undecided voters may be as high as 30% to 40%.

At face value this might not seem like a lot, but in an election that is being fiercely contested and where the electorate are clearly keen to make their vote count, this could be a significant figure. The simple fact is that there is a lot at stake here.

The election will mark the first democratic transfer of power from one president to another since Afghanistan was tipped into chaos by the fall of the ­Taliban regime following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

After 13 years of struggle to quell an insurgency that has claimed the lives of nearly 3500 members of a US-led coalition of troops and many thousands more Afghans, it is a pivotal moment - and how the Taliban know it. Just look at the way the insurgents have strategically shifted tack of late.

Rather than engage the Afghan Army in battle, the ­Taliban have instead targeted the very political mechanisms that enable the security forces to function.

In other words, Taliban ­thinking goes something like this - undermine the ballot, drive out international monitors, erode voter confidence. End result, they hope, is that foreign governments and international public opinion will see Afghanistan as so failed and congenitally incapable of making political progress that it no longer warrants any further assistance.

By doing this, the Taliban are aiming to compensate for their limited public support by getting large groups of the public to lose faith in the current political system and align with the ­Taliban for pragmatic reasons, or at least not oppose them.

Tactically, this is hardly rocket science, but then the Taliban's tried and tested methods while seemingly primitive are in fact often very sophisticated and produce the insurgents' desired results.

Already at least 10% of polling stations are expected to be shut due to security threats and many foreign observers have pulled out of Afghanistan in the wake of a deadly attack on the large Serena Hotel in Kabul last month.

As if this threat of violence was not enough, there is still the other pressing problem of fraud, ballot rigging and ghost polling stations for election organisers to contend with in this fledgling democracy.

For a start, it is said that ­estimates of the number of voters range from 10 to 12 million, but some 21 million voter cards have been issued.

According to former Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah, one of three main front-runners and President Hamid Karzai's main challenger last time round, there is the serious possibility of fraud on a "massive industrial scale."

Along with Dr Abdullah the other two key challengers are former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and another ex-Foreign Minister and national security adviser, Zalmay Rassoul.

Whatever the prevailing degree of election ­gerrymandering, it is almost certain that whoever loses will cry foul and reject the results. If no candidate wins over 50%, the constitution requires a runoff between the two top vote-getters.

Herein probably lies the most dangerous outcome of the ballot. Such claims will only lead to acrimony.

For these reasons ­Afghanistan's elections are often not won or lost on election day, but in the subsequent audit and disqualification process by the Independent Electoral ­Commission (IEC) and Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC). To say this is a messy, confusing and frequently contentious process that takes a long time to sort out is an understatement.

While preliminary results are expected April 24, final results are not due to be announced until May 14 provided there is no need for a runoff. Even if all goes smoothly, the next president will most likely not take office until sometime after June. In Afghan politics that is a long time, especially if a final outcome has to be reached by deal-making and negotiation, not solely by ballot counting.

Torturous as that process might be it is of course preferable to bloodshed and would still constitute progress. The real problem though is that it gives disgruntled political mischief makers and the Taliban plenty of time to make trouble.

A falling out between ­frustrated losing candidates and parties aside, the Taliban are sure to be waiting in the wings to mix things up.

The insurgents have ­undoubtedly calculated the weaknesses of each candidate and the likelihood of an indecisive vote. Given the chance they will use the political uncertainty to their advantage by escalating attacks and trying to drive Afghanistan toward another civil war.

This of course is a worst case scenario and does not take into account the fact that despite the fragility of the election process and meagre political progress made, many Afghans are doing all they can to ensure a better future can be grasped.

This is evident by the long queues and efforts made by many ordinary Afghan citizens keen to register, vote and have their voice heard. Such people want the days of guns behind them. Whether this weekend's presidential elections can be the start of that process only time will tell. Afghanistan and its people are long overdue a break.

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