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Determined to vote

Catherine James, Kabul April 4, 2014

Despite very real and lethal threats from the Taliban, Afghans seem determined to cast their ballots in Saturday’s presidential poll - the first democratic transfer of power in the country's history.

Men install a campaign banner of Afghan presidential candidate Gul Agha Sherzai during the second day of the presidential election campaign in Jalalabad Province February 3, 2014.
Image: Reuters

Fears abound for the safety of Afghanistan's voters and election workers alike, but talking to some of the young Afghans registering to vote this week, there is a sense that the greater the threat, the more determined they become.

The Taliban - a militant Islamic group that previously ruled Afghanistan - have pledged to disrupt the April 5 election. They have already launched a number of deadly attacks throughout the country over the past few months, but lately have increased their frequency.

Earlier this week, the group launched a five-hour assault against the headquarters of the Independent Election Commission in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. But by 5 am the following morning, Afghans were already queuing outside the voting registration offices – three hours before doors were due to open.

Abdul Mazar, 21, is one such citizen. Standing among at least 300 other men waiting to be admitted to the registration office in north Kabul, Abdul has travelled 480 kilometers from Baghlan Province and queued for two days in the hopes of obtaining the voter registration card.

'We need a good leader'

He says it is worth the effort because he wants a good leader for his country. "We need a good leader now that we have many problems. A good leader can solve these problems," he says. "If we have a good leader, the security will be good in Afghanistan."

Abdul is concerned about the future, but stresses he is not afraid of terrorism. "If we become afraid of these attacks, the following day they [the terrorists] will do more of the same," he says. "But if we decide not to fear these attacks, then we can accomplish anything. Our enemy will know that the Afghan people are strong. We are not afraid of anything, not of suicide attacks, not even of bombs."

His hope is also for a president who will improve relations with other countries in the region. He thinks this is one of the most important things for the next president to tackle to ensure better security.

It's only 9 am. But most of the men say they've been waiting at least three hours already. Some of them are curious about the interview with Abdul and break away from the queue which is about 80 meters long. As more onlookers gather around, a police officer approaches and stops the interview.

Men standing in front of a voting registration office in Kabul
Afghans queued for hours outside the voting registration officesImage: DW/Catherine James

Meanwhile, the women awaiting registration are all inside the walls of the compound, keeping with Afghanistan's cultural norms for the proper conduct of male-female relations. Already around 180 women have been given tickets to wait in line to be processed.

Marikar, 18, who only gives one name – a common practice in Afghanistan – has also been waiting for three hours. She says she wants to vote in order to vote for someone who can bring peace to her country.

Speaking through a translator, she explains she has lived all her life in Afghanistan, and says she has seen positive changes in her lifetime. But there is still much to be done. She particularly wants to see schools and hospitals improved.

As for her fear of Taliban reprisals if she votes, Marikar says that's why she is here – because she doesn't want to feel that fear anymore. She wants to fight against those who inflict such attacks.

'Alive but not living'

For Suriya, who also goes by one name, it's a similar story. She describes the current state of her people as "alive but not living." Having lived all her 20 years in Afghanistan, she says that while she has felt some positive changes, that has not extended to improvements in security. Despite more than a decade of foreign intervention, she says "still nobody feels safe."

An Afghan soldier stands in front of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission after the building was attacked.
Suriya: "Despite more than a decade of foreign intervention, nobody feels safe"Image: DW/H. Sirat

But she is willing to take the risk of voting as a show of strength against the perpetrators of terror attacks. "Of course they [the terrorists] want to scare the people off, but we are strong. We are still coming to register for the election and we will get the card [to vote],” she says.

Suriya says the most important thing for the next president, is to improve the lives of women and girls who do not have sufficient facilities for their education and ongoing study.

While the government has sought to reassure citizens that the election will happen in a peaceful environment, with increased security, other preparations demonstrate the fear that the day will not pass without a terror attack.

The Ministry of Public Health declared Wednesday that all health clinics are to remain open on Election Day, with medicines, beds and ambulances made available to respond to any emergency situation with potential mass casualties.

But security matters aside, possibly the toughest task for the government has been to convince its citizens that Saturday's poll will be legitimate and fair. The ballot-stuffing and standover tactics of the 2009 election have not been forgotten.

'None of the candidates care'

Mina Iari, 23, who completed her voting registration, is cynical about the voting process. She is also unimpressed with the quality of all eight remaining presidential candidates.

"None of the candidates care about Afghanistan. They just care about themselves to keep the money and to collect everything," she says.

"I've heard that they've already chosen the president. I think it's Zalmai Rassoul because behind him is [President Hamid] Karzai and he wants to stay [in power].

Pictures of the eight candidates in the race for the Afghan presidency
There are eight candidates in the race for the Afghan presidency

"People think they are casting their ballots, but they don't know that the president has already been chosen for them.” Mina will be lodging a protest vote - leaving the ballot blank - to prove her point.

The elections will go ahead on Saturday, with a tight finish expected between the three front-runners: former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

To win, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of valid votes. Given the closeness of the race, this is unlikely to happen. The top two candidates will go into a run-off, which is expected to take weeks, if not months.