Afghanistan began registering voters across the war-torn country this weekend, as it seeks to ensure long-delayed legislative elections in October are seen as credible and fraud-free.
Over the next two months authorities hope to register as many as 14 million adults at more than 7,000 polling centres-an ambitious goal in a country where militants control or contest much of the territory.
“The main challenge is insecurity, particularly in rural areas,” Abdul Badie Sayad, chairman of the Independent Election Commission, told AFP recently.
In addition to the Taliban and Islamic State group terrorising swathes of the population, “local powers, illegal militias and strongmen will try to interfere” in the parliamentary and district council elections, Sayad predicted.
A shortage of female staff at polling centres, particularly in conservative rural areas, could also impede participation by women in the polls, which are seen as a test run for next year’s presidential elections.
“Women won’t be given permission from their families to reach the registration centres where they may be asked to remove their burqa to show their faces,” Sayad said.
In Kabul on Saturday police officers stood guard at a school being used as a polling centre, but only a handful of men showed up to register.
One of them was Mohammad Hussein, a 54-year-old shopkeeper, who said he wanted to vote for a candidate “able to bring about change in this country”.
“I voted in 2010 but I made a mistake-the MP didn’t bring any change. This time I need to vote for someone who works without taking bribes,” Hussein told AFP.
The 20 October polls were originally set to be held in 2015 following presidential elections the previous year, but were repeatedly pushed back due to security fears and logistical issues within the fragile unity government.
If held, candidates will contest the 249 seats in the National Assembly for five-year terms. The country will also hold regional elections in tandem in hundreds of districts across Afghanistan-some of which are outside of Kabul’s control.
Over the coming weeks the IEC hopes to register 13-14 million people at polling centres where they will be required to cast their vote, which officials hope will reduce the risk of ballot-box stuffing.
A television advertising campaign has been launched to persuade ordinary Afghans that their vote will count-something that will be a challenge after a disputed presidential election in 2014.
“We are trying very hard to increase the confidence of the public to increase the legitimacy of the elections,” Sayad said.