August 22, 2018 / 9:06 AM / 3 months ago

Afghan bid to weed out suspect candidates spells more election trouble

KABUL (Reuters) - A ban on dozens of Afghan strongmen and lawmakers from running for parliament because of suspected links to illegal armed groups has spurred threats to disrupt a general election already at risk from worsening security.

FILE PHOTO: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

The October polls, seen as an important test of Afghanistan’s democratic legitimacy and a dry run for a presidential election next year, have been repeatedly delayed because of organisational problems.

“There will be riots, protests and road-blockages if they don’t accept me,” said Assadullah Sharifi, a lawmaker who is among 35 people the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has barred from standing.

“I will do whatever it takes to contest elections,” said Sharifi, who is close to the powerful former governor of the northern province of Balkh, Atta Mohammad Noor.

Afghanistan has for generations been plagued by the problem of powerful provincial figures defying central authority, taxing whatever business they can and maintaining private forces.

The United Nations, which is overseeing the election, has welcomed the decision to vet candidates in preparation for the Oct. 20 election.

Even without dozens of angry candidates to contend with, election authorities face daunting insecurity. The Taliban have warned people not to vote and dozens of people have been killed in militant attacks on voter registration centres.

‘PROVE ME GUILTY’

Election Commission officials trying to weed out candidates with links to illegal groups point to the limited influence that parties have in politics, and in elections in particular, meaning candidates have traditionally run as independents, with few checks on their records.

This year’s bans have for the first time highlighted ties between politicians and armed groups, to the fury of excluded candidates.

Some of them have shut down election commission offices and launched anti-government protests.

Sharifi rejected the accusations levelled by voters in his constituency of ties to an illegal militia and of violent crime.

“I am ready to surrender before the top court if they can prove me guilty,” he told Reuters.

Electoral officials this month summoned and questioned more than 100 hopeful candidates against whom complaints had been lodged, mostly by the public, eventually banning the 35.

Many of those questioned said that while they may have hired armed bodyguards, in a country plagued by militant violence and kidnapping for ransom, that did not mean they were linked to proscribed group.

Another of the banned candidates, Mullah Tarakhel, a powerful lawmaker from Kabul, suggested that his supporters could cause trouble.

“The ECC has committed a blunder by not allowing me to stand for elections. My supporters can stop the vote,” Tarakhel told a news channel.

Tarakhel was not available for comment and his aide declined to discuss the issue.

One policeman was killed and one wounded in a suicide bomb attack this month during a protest by Tarakhel’s supporters in Kabul. There was no claim of responsibility.

‘ATACKING US’

President Ashraf Ghani’s office, election officials and diplomats have tried to intervene to defuse tension but electoral officials say they still face danger.

“Our officials collected evidence to prove their links with criminals and underground armed groups,” said Alireza Rohani, spokesman and secretary at the ECC.

“We have nothing personal against them, but they are attacking us.”

Ghani, who is widely expected to run for a second five-year term in 2019, is under pressure from his international allies to hold the parliamentary elections and bolster democracy.

But some of the banned lawmakers accuse Ghani of using the ECC to sideline lawmakers who oppose him.

Slideshow (2 Images)

“President Ghani wants to kick us out of parliament,” said Fawzia Koofi, who along with her sister, Mariam, has been banned because of suspected links with an illegal militia. The sisters deny any links.

“He wants to fill the parliament with his aides,” she said.

An official in Ghani’s office dismissed the suggestion Ghani was using the ban to sideline opponents, saying the electoral commission was independent did not take orders from the government.

Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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