The assassinations of two campaign staffers ushered in Afghanistan’s presidential election campaigns in ominous fashion, as the newly democratic — but still fragile — nation prepares for its first democratic transfer of power in April and the imminent withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces following an indecisive 13-year war on the Taliban insurgency.
The two men, who worked for front-runner and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, were gunned down in the Western province of Herat on Saturday, the day before two months of presidential campaigning officially kicked off. No group has claimed responsibility for the killings.
"This coward action constitutes a violent intimidation of electoral candidates and their supporters, and cannot be tolerated," a statement from the United Nations read.
The Taliban have condemned the election as a “waste of time” and repeatedly threatened violence against Afghanistan’s nascent electoral infrastructure, but the insurgent group has not claimed responsibility for the killings, which would be out of character for the group.
Nevertheless, the killings have stirred fears that other campaign staff, government officials, candidates and even voters themselves could meet a similar fate. While some degree of electoral fraud is expected in the new democracy, poor voter turnout due to security concerns would be a true disappointment.
The 2009 polls, which came down to a runoff between Abdullah and President Hamid Karzai, were marred by accusations of rampant corruption on all sides. In November of that year, Abdullah bowed out of the runoff saying he had little faith in a fair election following accusations of fraud in the first round.
But he has chosen to run again, and as of Sunday, his campaign was in full swing. In Kabul, billboards began appearing as the candidates prepared their first campaign conferences. In Shahr-e Now, the capital’s business district, a billboard of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the ex-finance minister considered to be in a tight race with Abdullah, was erected near the historic Cinema Park.
Western diplomats expect the first round to be split between one of several prominent Pashtuns and Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik who appeals to that voter base.
While Afghanistan has no majority community, ethnic Pashtuns are considered the largest community and ethnicity is expected to play a big role in choosing the next president.
Other front-running Pashtun candidates include Karzai's brother, Qayum Karzai, and former Islamist warlord Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf.
In total, 11 candidates have thrown their hats into the ring, among them former ministers and government officials, opposition figures and media personalities. They have made big promises, from socioeconomic development to better relations with the West — which Karzai has shunned as of late — and all have pledged to crack down on rampant corruption.
On the first day, candidates delivered many promises, said Masood Korosh in an op-ed for Afghanistan’s Daily Outlook. Korosh questioned their lack of specifics and mused about which candidate would offer “concrete plans for combating issues that have grasped the Afghan society.”
Among those issues is trust in elected officials. In the past two elections, both won my Karzai, losing candidates rejected the results.
“The main problem is the legitimacy of the result, and that needs to be agreed on by all 11 contenders and the population on the whole so that they all feel included,” Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, a think tank, told Al Jazeera. “Otherwise, the culture of solving problems with a gun will still be very widespread.”
What role Hamid Karzai will play in handing over power once his term ends remains unclear, except that he has agreed to do so rather than seek to amend the constitution and allow himself a fourth term in office. Karzai has not yet endorsed any candidate — not even his own brother.
Reliable polling on the Afghan populace is unavailable, and an ambitious attempt by the U.S. to fund a nationwide poll was aborted last week due to allegations that the U.S. was meddling in Afghan affairs.
What is certain is that Karzai’s successor, whoever he may be, will need to address souring relations with Western backers.
Karzai has refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would keep about 10,000 U.S. troops in the country after 2014 to assist with the security transition to Afghanistan’s roughly 50,000-man security forces. The president has demanded that certain preconditions be met before he signs. The country’s powerful council of elders, the Loya Jirga, and much of the Afghan populace are in favor of signing the BSA, fearing their nation’s fragile gains might be undone by the Taliban without foreign military assistance.
“Karzai is concerned about the future of Afghanistan and his own political legacy,” said Ruttig. “That’s why he’s pushing the West so much at the moment — to help open a dialogue with the Taliban. He wants to go down in history as the one who got the peace effort on track.”
Karzai will drop that peace effort in the lap of his successor, should elections go as planned.
But political violence, like the twin assassinations this weekend, could dampen the moment of hope and complicate the legitimacy of the country’s first transition. Many Afghans are already fearful of showing up to the polls.
“If there is insecurity, I will likely still vote, but I won’t let my family (vote)," a man named Abdul Bashir, from Kapisa province, told Al Jazeera.
In light of those concerns and wanting to prove that they are capable of maintaining security in the country ahead of a foreign withdrawal, Afghan security forces will be on high alert. Each candidate has been provided with three armored cars and several dozen police officers while on the campaign trail.
Sediq Sediqqi, an interior ministry spokesman, said in a tweet that the Afghan National Police was "proud to be part of these historic moments and will do everything to ensure security."