April 23, 2018 / 2:04 PM / a month ago

Kabul blast highlights risk to long-delayed Afghan vote

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan officials pledged that Sunday’s deadly suicide bombing of a voter centre in Kabul will not derail preparations for this year’s parliamentary elections but the attack has underlined the risks to an operation already clouded by doubt.

Afghan women arrive at a voter registration centre to register for the upcoming parliamentary and district council elections in Kabul, Afghanistan April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

More than 50 people queuing to receive identity cards for the ballot were killed in the blast, by far the most serious of a series of attacks on the registration process officially launched earlier this month.

“The incident which happened yesterday has caused problems,” said Soma Ziarmal, an elections officer helping supervise a centre in the capital. “But we’re urging people to come in and take part in the process to have a better future and build our country,” she said.

After repeated delays, the elections for parliament and district councils are due in October, putting officials under heavy pressure to complete the registration of 14 million voters and issue around 10 million new identity cards by the autumn to ensure credible participation levels.

So far, just over 291,000 people have been registered since the process began just over a week ago, according to Wasima Badghisi, a member of the Independent Election Commission.

She said security was a concern but it was still too early to say what impact Sunday’s attack may have on registration.

“The beginning was unexpectedly slow but we’re satisfied and we hope the number of people will increase,” she said, adding that the commission had requested that government offices allow staff time off to register.

If the work cannot be completed by October, Afghanistan’s harsh climate, rugged terrain and poor roads mean the process would have to be put on hold over the winter months, delaying the vote until next year when presidential elections are due.

“The upcoming elections in Afghanistan will be key for democracy in the country,” said a statement from the European Union, which is providing some 30 million euros ($37 million) to help fund the vote and which like other international partners is pressing for the elections to take place this year.

Parliament is still sitting three years after its mandate expired in 2015, and donors fear that further delays will fatally undermine the legitimacy of a political system already badly scarred by the disputed presidential election of 2014.

A complex registration procedure, designed to reduce as much as possible the voter fraud that has marred past elections, has been set up after numerous setbacks and delays, requiring voters to register in the centre where they will cast their ballot.

However, protecting more than 7,000 voter registration centres around the country, many in areas under full or partial Taliban control, has posed an additional headache to a government already struggling to contain the insurgency.

Late on Sunday, at least seven members of the security forces were killed when Taliban militants attacked the voter registration centre they were guarding in the western province of Baghdis.

That followed other incidents last week in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where two policemen were shot, and in the central province of Ghor, where a voter registration centre was burned out.

Many Afghans are disillusioned by a system marked by widespread corruption and inefficiency and under strain from increasingly bitter ethnic divisions.

Officials fear that security fears may deepen the general apathy and many people may simply not register to vote.

“People aren’t interested in the election anymore,” said Gulalai, a voter who came in to register at a centre in Kabul. “Given what’s happened over the past few years and the current security situation, with things getting worse every day, a lot of people aren’t going to take part.”

($1 = 0.8177 euros)

Additional reporting by Mohammad Aziz and Samar Zwak; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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