If all goes well, the people of Afghanistan will vote on October 20 in elections to the lower house of parliament, called the Wolesi Jirga. There is no voting for the upper house of parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, which consists of parliamentarians chosen from local councils and those appointed by the president, as well as members elected in district elections. Elections to the Wolesi Jirga are being seen by the international community as a precursor to the presidential elections next year. If the October 20 polling goes relatively smoothly – something that appears unlikely – it will create a certain confidence that the presidential elections next year can be held successfully.

Election campaigning began on September 28 and ends on October 17. The Wolesi Jirga has 250 seats, with ten seats reserved for kuchis (nomads) and one jointly for the Sikh and Hindu communities. 68 seats are reserved for women. According to the Independent Election Commission there are 8,918,107 registered voters. The Commission cancelled over 600,000 registrations because the individuals were either underage, or the entries were missing dates of birth, or were duplicate. There are 35 multi-seat constituencies (for the 34 provinces and the kuchis) with the distribution of seats based on population ranging from 33 for Kabul Province to two each for Nimruz and Panjshir.

Although political parties are legal in Afghanistan and can compete in the elections, candidates can do so only as individuals who register themselves in the party's name. Parties cannot field lists of candidates. The media, citing the IEC, reports that a total of 2,565 candidates will contest, including 417 women. 35 candidates have been disqualified. Kabul has the largest number of candidates at 804. Of the parties, Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Jumbish e Melli e Islam has fielded the maximum number at 44, including eight women. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb e Islami has 42 candidates including two women. Just 205 candidates are registered with parties with the remainder contesting as independents. Reports by the Pajhwok News Agency indicate that hundreds of relatives of high-ranking government officials have nominated themselves.

The elections will be held as per the provisions of the Electoral Law finalised in 2016 which established the Independent Election Commission and Electoral Complaints Commission. Articles 39, 44 and 104 of the legislation are particularly relevant. According to Article 39, anyone standing in an election must have been born an Afghan citizen or obtained Afghan citizenship at least ten years before nomination day, and they should not have been convicted of crimes against humanity or felonies, or have been deprived of their civil rights by a court, and should be at least 25 years old. Article 104 allows for a postponement of elections on account of security situations, natural disasters, and other similar conditions that would make it impossible to ensure general and fair representation.

Article 44 stipulates that commanders and members of an illegal group cannot stand in elections, and imposes certain other restrictions: for example, sitting judges, governors or security forces officers cannot stand unless they resign from their posts. While the electoral law provides no procedures or criteria for disqualification, this lacuna was remedied by the Vetting Commission on June 21 when it approved a procedure aimed at implementing the objectives of Article 44. The responsibility for investigating candidates' links to illegal armed groups now rests with the Vetting Commission. It was on the basis of these articles that the IEC postponed the elections in Ghazni and disqualified 35 of the candidates.

Afghanistan has a multiparty system, with numerous political parties making it impossible for one party to form the government by itself. Coalitions have been the norm. The law provides that a party can seek registration if it has 10,000 members and does not advocate anything against Islamic morality. The Afghan Ministry of Justice currently records 84 registered parties.

A significant recent development that could influence the course of the elections is the formation of the Grand National Coalition of Afghanistan, under the leadership of First Vice President of Afghanistan General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Jamiat Islami Chief Executive Atta Muhammad Noor, Second Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq, and other key figures, with the common objective of ousting President Ashraf Ghani, who is standing for a second term in the presidential elections next year. The GNCA is a successor to the Council for the Salvation of Afghanistan formed in June 2017 by Dostum, governor of Balkh province Atta Muhammad Noor, and Mohammad Mohaqiq. Kabul-based political analyst Waheed Mozhdah told Arab News that the formation of the alliance poses “a serious challenge to Ghani”, and is a sign of how his “wrong policies” alienated senior government members and reconciled old rivals. “This is a major development. It is in fact the formation of a front against Ghani.”

The alliance said its focus is primarily on “growing instability, poverty and ethnic divisions” in the country, among other issues. But others feel that the absence of a common vision among the constituents of the GNCA will ultimately lead to disunity.

A major concern has been voter fraud. The GNCA had held a demonstration where it displayed to reporters thousands of fake identity cards containing voter stickers. The coalition said it would boycott the elections and find other alternatives. The IEC in a statement said the GNCA was sabotaging the election process and disrupting public minds by showcasing government documents and sensitive content. A German-made biometric system was reportedly to be used to ensure proper identification of voters. But while the IEC said that 70% of the work had been done, there was some scepticism expressed by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, which said that the IEC had not been able to put effective systems in place.

The elections will be monitored by both foreign and domestic observers, though a shortage of resources could limit the presence of foreign observers. Five major domestic election observer organisations said, in a statement in the first week of October, that they would deploy a total of 6,565 observers with 40 percent being women. These organisations are the Transparent Elections Foundation of Afghanistan Organisation, the Election and Transparency Watch Organisation of Afghanistan, the Afghan Civil Society Forum Organisation, the Free and Fair Election of Afghanistan Organisation, and Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation and Recreation. The European Union is reportedly considering sending a three-man team, while the United Nations will depute some 400 monitors, most of them Afghan. There have been instances of candidates offering upto 5000 Afghanis to hire observers. In effect this would be a way of offering bribes for votes or manipulation. Facebook advertisements are one of the channels being used for this purpose.

As voting day draws near there is increasing concern about the security of voters, candidates, and electoral officials, and fears that voter fraud might tarnish the legitimacy of the elections. The IEC had initially announced that there would be 7,355 polling centres across the country, but due to security concerns only 5,100 will be able to operate. The situation has been extremely grave in Ghazni province, where intense attacks by the Taliban have led to a cancellation of polling, with elections now likely to take place next year along with the presidential elections. In the run up to the elections there have been a number of incidents of protesters forcing shut the offices of the Independent Election Commission in various places. The 35 candidates, including some strongmen and lawmakers, disqualified by the ECC also threatened that their supporters would protest, adding another security dimension to the electoral exercise.

The Taliban, while stating that they would not target civilians, have issued a warning to the people not to vote. In their latest statement they caution the candidates to pull out of “the bogus election”, which they termed a “malicious” American conspiracy. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that militants would pull no punches to disrupt the balloting. In addition to an escalation of attacks by the Taliban, there has also been increasing violence by the Islamic State. The targets have included political rallies, voter registration stations, candidates, officials, army bases, as well as offices of the United Nations. In the run up to campaigning, five candidates were killed in separate attacks. IEC officials said another two candidates had been abducted and three others wounded in attacks.

During campaigning, candidates have been forced to hold closed-door rallies and avoid mass gatherings. The authorities are said to have deployed 54,000 personnel to ensure security, but it is uncertain whether they will be able to withstand the determined effort by the Taliban to sabotage the electoral process, and the increasing attacks by the Islamic State. The Taliban and the Islamic State have also been fighting each other, and Faryab, Jawzjan, Helmand, Ghazni and Nangarhar – where the Islamic State has established a base – have seen a marked upsurge in violence.

There have been attempts by President Ashraf Ghani to try and persuade the Taliban to give up violence and to participate in the elections as a political formation. This has also been the message conveyed by the Americans to the Taliban. A Taliban delegation met US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells in Qatar recently. Reports stated that Wells told the Taliban delegation that the US wanted the Taliban to accept the Afghan constitution, renounce violence and break ties with foreign terrorist groups, if they wanted to engage in discussions on joining Afghanistan’s "mainstream". But the Taliban made it clear that their fight would continue until all foreign troops were removed from Afghanistan. In a message on Eid al-Adha, Taliban leader Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadah said the group remained committed to “Islamic goals”, the sovereignty of Afghanistan and ending the war.

The Americans have been trying to persuade Pakistan to play a positive role and persuade the Taliban to give up violence, and to stop providing them safe haven in Pakistani territory. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and General Dunford, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, both visited Pakistan recently. The Pentagon has said that Pakistan needs to be part of the solution in Afghanistan. But there seems to be little that Pakistan has done to satisfy the Americans. The Trump administration has been quite vocal in accusing the country of malfeasance, and has cut its aid security assistance, demanding repeatedly that Pakistan stop all assistance to terrorist outfits and prevent the Afghan Taliban from getting support from cadres in Pakistan. The Afghan government even sent a delegation to Pakistan to meet Maulana Sami ul Haq – the godfather of the Taliban – and seek his intercession in finding a solution to the situation in Afghanistan.

Many Afghans blame the US government for the troubles in Afghanistan. Members of the Wolesi Jirga had earlier called for a review of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US government. Despite the presence of 14,000 American troops in the country, the Afghan army and the foreign forces have not been able to make a dent in the Taliban’s strength. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in July 2018 that only 56.3 percent of Afghanistan’s districts were under government control or influence. A full 30 percent of districts, the report stated, were contested territory. The situation had led to the US military making secret, for the first time since 2009, the actual and authorised total troop numbers and attrition rate for the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar described the US presence in Afghanistan as “ineffective” and “a reason behind growing insecurity and continuation of the conflict in the war-torn country”. He had also said that the elections were “a joke” and “shameful” and demanded the conduct of free, fair and transparent polls. He alleged the government and foreigners wanted the elections to be rigged and fraudulent. Hekmatyar announced the creation of the “Grand Gathering of National Unity (GGNU),” a coalition of several political parties and said the coalition might field a joint presidential candidate next year. He also said the GGNU would create a jirga of impartial people who would create a comprehensive and inclusive strategy for peace and suggested that there could be a non-battle zone where the armed opponents could stay and the area would be controlled by those acceptable to all. Armed opponents would live there with complete immunity.

President Trump is said to be quite disappointed with the lack of progress in Afghanistan, which led to Erik Prince, the head of Blackwater, mooting a proposal to replace American soldiers with contractors from his company. He had lobbied earlier also for such a move but did not make any headway, with even Defense Secretary General Mattis not in favour, saying that “When Americans put their nation’s credibility on the line, privatising it is probably not a wise idea.” This time Prince has been lobbying hard in Washington, and also visited Afghanistan where he met officials and gave media interviews. Afghan officials said that any move to replace US military advisers with private contractors would further undermine government legitimacy and fuel Taliban accusations that the war was being conducted for the benefit of foreign interests. With presidential elections due next year, President Ashraf Ghani had rejected the proposal; his National Security Adviser issued a statement condemning the “destructive and divisive debate”. The statement added that under no circumstances would the Afghan government and people allow the counter-terrorist fight to become a private, for-profit business.

Serious doubts persist in some circles whether Afghanistan will be able to meet the schedule declared for the Wolesi Jirga elections. A major incident, which both the Taliban and the Islamic state have the capability to cause, could jeopardise the electoral process. The threats from the candidates who have been disqualified and protests by the GNCA could also hinder the electoral process. For registered voters, security considerations and threats might be sufficient persuasion to stay home. October 19 will be the crucial time to see whether things will move smoothly – for in Afghanistan everything can change in a day.