KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan is holding parliamentary elections on Saturday despite deep security concerns and ongoing fighting in as many as 20 out of the country's 34 provinces.
The vote comes amid a particularly vicious campaign by the Taliban and the Islamic State group, which have been staging near-daily attacks. On the eve of the balloting, voting in Kandahar province was postponed for a week, following a deadly attack there Thursday that killed at least two senior provincial officials, including its powerful police chief. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Besides the security challenges, there have also been concerns over the transparency of the vote and for the first time, the election commission has equipped polling stations with biometric identification systems.
Here is a look at the elections, the figures and key issues in the vote:
HOW MANY SEATS, HOW MANY CANDIDATES AND POLLING STATIONS?
There are 2,565 candidates vying for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, including 417 women candidates. Voters will be able to cast ballots at more than 19,000 polling stations in 33 provinces. Of those, the elections commission says as many as 11,667 polling stations are reserved for men and 7,429 for women, while 46 will serve Afghan nomads, known as Kochis, and 22 will serve minority Sikhs and Hindus. The Kochis have 10 parliament seats reserved for them while the Sikhs and Hindus jointly have one seat.
However, security fears have forced the election commission to close about 2,000 polling stations.
MAJOR PLAYERS AND POLITICAL PARTIES
A few parties have emerged in opposition to the current national unity government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, but none can be considered major players as most candidates in the vote are running as independents. Afghanistan's parliament includes both a lower and an upper house, but only members of the lower house are directly elected. The upper house consists of a mixture of parliamentarians chosen from local councils and those appointed by the president, as well as members elected in district elections. Legislature passed in the lower house has to be approved by the upper chamber.
DISPUTE IN GHAZNI PROVINCE
Elections will not take place in eastern Ghazni province amid an ongoing dispute over how to divide its electoral constituencies to ensure a more balanced ethnic representation. Lawmakers elected from Ghazni in 2010 will retain their seats until the province is able to hold a vote. In the last elections, eight years ago, minority Hazaras won all the seats from Ghazni, leaving majority Pashtuns and also Tajiks without representation as voting wasn't held in their areas, which are mostly controlled by the Taliban.
NO DISTRICT COUNCIL ELECTIONS THIS TIME?
Initially, elections for district councils were supposed to take place at the same time as parliamentary elections but the Independent Election Commission delayed that vote because only a tenth of the country's 400 districts had enough male and female candidates step forward to run in district races. Security fears and violence are top reasons why so few wanted to run for district seats. Other reasons include high illiteracy rates among Afghans living in districts.
Around 8.8 million people have registered to vote. Though there hasn't been a census for more than 30 years, Afghanistan's population is estimated to be more than 30 million. Of the registered voters, 64 percent are men and 34 percent are women; the remaining 2 percent are Kochis, Sikhs and Hindus.
More than 50,000 members of the Afghan security forces will be deployed to secure polling stations. Afghan officials have announced three levels of security belts at each polling center. Police and members of the intelligence force will make up the first two belts, covering a distance of 3 to 5 kilometers (1.8 to 3 miles) from polling centers. The third security belt will be patrolled jointly by police and Afghan army. Officials say elections won't be held in 10 districts that are completely under Taliban control, including five in southern Helmand province, a Taliban heartland. The other five districts include two in northeastern Badakhshan province and one each in northern Baghlan, Sari Pul and southern Zabul province.
VIOLENCE AHEAD OF ELECTIONS
There have been deadly attacks against candidates and campaign rallies, both by the Taliban and Islamic States militants. Since the 20-day campaign period began, at least two candidates and over 34 civilians have been killed in such attacks, including suicide bombings, motorcycle bombs and drive-by shootings. In the run-up to campaigning, five candidates were killed and two were abducted, their fates unknown. Also, Afghan security forces accidentally killed three bodyguards of an independent candidate during a raid on a house near his residence.
On Thursday, Kandahar's powerful police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq and at least one other senior provincial official and two policemen were killed when an Afghan guard opened fire at a meeting with U.S. officials to discuss security ahead of the vote. There were conflicting reports on the fate of Kandahar governor, Zalmay Wesa, who was initially reported wounded.
POSTPONEMENT OF ELECTIONS IN KANDAHAR
After Thursday's attack, the Independent Election Commission postponed the elections in Kandahar for a week, to give voters who might have stayed at home on Saturday over security fears the chance to vote.
The Taliban, who have been fighting Afghan and NATO forces for more than 17 years, have condemned the elections and warned candidates and Afghan security forces they would be targeted. They have also warned teachers and students not to participate in the elections and not to allow schools to be used as polling centers.
CIVIL SOCIETY AND ELECTON OBSERVIERS
More than 400,000 civil society activists, independents and members of political parties, as well as national and international observers and representatives from media outlets will follow the polling day.
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
The Afghan government is keen to prove it's capable of holding these elections despite prevailing security challenges. The vote was originally scheduled for 2015 but the situation was too unstable at the time. Politically, there was a crisis following the 2014 presidential elections, and NATO forces had only just handed over security to Afghan forces at the end of 2014.
Now, the government wants to send a message to the Taliban — who are engaging in separate negotiations with the United States on a possible political settlement — that its institutions are functioning, and that if the Taliban decide to come to the negotiating table, they will have to deal with a government and a political process that's acceptable to the majority of Afghans.