A shopkeeper in Kandahar city says what others are thinking: Casting a ballot in next month's Afghan parliamentary election isn't worth the risk.
"I'm not going to vote. I can't risk my life for nothing," says 31-year-old Hekmatullah as he calls out prices for lipstick and nail polish to women shuffling through the store in burqas.
Special Section: Afghanistan
After a fraud-ridden presidential election last year that threatened to undermine President Hamid Karzai's legitimacy and international support, the Sept. 18 parliamentary ballot is being watched closely as a test of whether the Afghan government is serious about reform.
A second flawed ballot would devastate Karzai's reputation abroad and threaten U.S. congressional support for the government at a decisive phase in the nearly 9-year war.
The Afghan constitution required a parliamentary election by May 22, but the balloting was postponed by four months because of security concerns and lack of funds from international donors, which were withheld until Karzai replaced top election officials who ran the presidential vote.
With fighting escalating in much of the country and bitter memories of the presidential vote fraud, many Afghans wonder what's the point.
"We don't know if we will be alive tomorrow and you are talking about the election?" said Abdul Jabbar Aghnozada, a farmer in Arghandab district just north of Kandahar city where fighting has been heavy. "I don't know why they are bothering to hold an election when the government can't do anything for our safety."
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In eastern Paktia province and southern Kandahar province, candidates decided not to campaign at all because it was too dangerous, according to the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the main Afghan observer body.
"There is a perception in some provinces that the winners are already decided by local officials," said Nader Nadery, the head of the group.
Many candidates are using government resources for their campaign, and there have been no sanctions of these people or public denouncements, he said.
A report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a private, non-profit organization that promotes journalism in conflict areas, said that in relatively peaceful parts of the north, candidates complain they can't campaign because of poor security and threats from the Taliban.
Even in the relatively safe capital of Kabul, many say they don't see any reason to vote.
"There's too much corruption," said Mabubullah Ayubi, who runs a restaurant. "All the people with posters up - they are warlords." He argued that the parliament hasn't done much for the country over the past five years, so he saw no reason to go vote when there could be attacks on polling centers.
Asked about reforms, Ayubi was skeptical that anything would change.
"We're not looking five years back for that, we're looking just last year to the presidential election. There was too much fraud," he said, adding that he knows of people who have five or six voter registration cards for the upcoming election - allowing them to cast multiple ballots.
Karzai's international partners, who condemned the presidential vote last year, are working to make sure the September ballot, when voters will choose 249 members of the lower house from among more than 2,500 candidates, will be cleaner than the presidential vote.
But few are setting their hopes high.
"They will not be perfect and they will not be elections that you would see in other countries which do not have the same challenges," the top U.N. official here, Staffan de Mistura, said in a statement to the U.N. Security Council last month. "But they will be better."
To this end, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission has blacklisted about 6,000 poll workers either for inexperience or misconduct during last year's vote. Election officials will swear on the Islamic holy book the Quran to uphold the law, said Fazel Ahmad Manawi, chairman of the commission organizing the vote. Provincial election chiefs have been reassigned so that no one will oversee voting in the same province as last year.
"We have learned a lot from last year's election," Manawi said.
There are some hopeful signs. Polling stations will be open in Marjah - the town in Helmand province that was wrested from Taliban control in a major U.S. offensive earlier this year.
Abdullah Jan, who works at a transportation business in the capital of Helmand, said he's worried about safety but he'll vote anyway. He hopes that the lessons of 2009 have been learned.
"I don't think it will be safe, but I think it will be a fair election," Jan said.
The presidential vote last summer brought with it a spike in violence, particularly in the south. Poll workers and voters were attacked, and Taliban insurgents fired rockets into Kandahar city.
Even so, Hekmatullah, the cosmetics vendor, who like many Afghans uses only one name, voted last year. Now, even with more U.S. and Afghan troops in the streets, he said he doesn't feel safer and has lost trust in the system.
"Nothing has changed. The Taliban still have their hold here, so I'm sure it won't be safe to vote. And it won't be fair," he said.
The major test of reform will likely be the number of voting sites that open. In the presidential vote, officials opened hundreds of so-called ghost sites that were too dangerous for voters to visit. Though observers said few voters showed up, boxes came back to Kabul full of ballots.
Electoral officials plan to open 5,897 voting sites for the parliamentary election, having discarded more than 900 proposed venues because army and police could not guarantee security. Last year, 6,167 voting centers nominally operated.
Security officials first promised they could secure 6,835 sites. The election commission persuaded them to reduce the number to a more reasonable figure, Manawi said.
"The security forces are always trying to make the situation look much better than it is," Manawi said. "They weren't looking at reality."
All the steps to encourage a clean election mean little to Aghnozada, a thin 48-year-old with a long beard in Kandahar's Arghandab Valley. He said the Taliban are too powerful for him to consider voting.
"I haven't seen any election commission officers or candidates," he said, sitting on the grass outside his mud-brick house. Aghnozada said he didn't know who was running in his district.
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