Hundreds of voting centers in Afghanistan, mostly in the country's volatile south and east, will be closed due to security concerns as Afghans head to the polls for Saturday's presidential runoff.
Some 6,300 polling stations, most of them segregated for male and female voters, will be open as presidential frontrunners Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister and anti-Taliban figure, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former finance minister and World Bank official, seek to clinch the country's top office. The runoff follows first round election on April 5, in which Abdullah claimed 45 percent of the vote and Ghani secured 31.56 percent.
According to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC), more than 800 voting centers will be shut in Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, Urozgan, Ghazni, Nooristan, Nangarhar, Farah, Badghis, Kunar, Jozjan, Ghor, Saripol and Badakhshan provinces. IEC officials tell VOA Dari Service that although the overwhelming majority of these voting centers are closed due to Taliban threats, some stations have been shuttered due to non-security reasons such as geographic inaccessibility.
The Taliban have repeatedly warned that fighters and suicide attackers will target anyone involved in the electoral process, calling the entire election "illegitimate" and staged by Western powers to install a puppet leader. In addition to attacking IEC offices, insurgents last week bombed Abdullah's convoy as it moved between campaign events in Kabul, killing 12 people including several civilians.
Charges of Pashtun marginalization
According to Ghani spokesman Abbas Noyan, many of the more than 800 defunct voting centers are in Pashtun areas where Ghani defeated his first round rivals.
"We're seriously concerned about the closure of these voting centers because they're mostly in provinces where the majority of voters support us," he said. "If these voting centers remain closed, some 300,000 of our supporters will be deprived from a process which has to be inclusive and nationwide."
Ghani's campaign officials have lodged complaints with the IEC and asked President Hamid Karzai to consider opening some of these centers, but the requests have not been granted.
Fazlrahman Orya, a spokesman for Abdullah's camp, said polling must not take place in insecure areas.
"Where there is no security there should be no voting," Orya told VOA Dari, adding that polling without security would be fraudulent.
Jed Ober, director of programs at Democracy International, said closing down voting centers in insecure areas is categorized as a "fraud-preventing" measure.
"The decision to close a polling station should be based solely on whether or not that station can be secured so that voters can safely participate free from violence and intimidation," Ober said.
No 'winner-take-all' outcome
A man loads ballot boxes and other election material onto a donkey to be transported to polling stations not accessible by road, in Shutul, Panjshir province, June 13, 2014.
A man walks with a donkey loaded with ballot boxes and other election material to be transported to polling stations not accessible by road in Shutul, Panjshir province, June 13, 2014.
A woman walks past a mural to support voting in Kandahar, south of Kabul, June 13, 2014.
Afghan election workers in a warehouse carry ballot boxes and election materials, in Kabul, June 13, 2014.
Afghan police and soldiers guard checkpoints at almost every intersection, searching vehicles and frisking drivers in a massive security operation ahead of elections, Kabul, June 13, 2014.
With fears for violence high during the presidential election, Afghanistan National Army soldiers stand alert, in Herat, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, June 13, 2014.
A female police officer, in blue burqa, searches female passengers at a checkpoint in Kandahar, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, June 13, 2014.
Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai speaks during his last campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 11, 2014.
Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, center, with his allies, raises his arm during his last campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 11, 2014.
While analysts say the candidates are currently locked in a statistical dead heat, the country's election laws say runoff results must declare one candidate victorious.
The United Nations and the U.S. have called on both candidates to refrain from fraud and support the country's fledging electoral institutions.
"It is our fervent hope that the two candidates, with the future of their country in their hands at this unprecedented time, will not seek a winner-take-all outcome," James Cunningham, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, said on Wednesday.
Both candidates have also been called upon to accept the final results of the election and avoid plunging the country into a political and constitutional crisis if he is not declared the winner.
"Act responsibly, not only as politicians, but as citizens of this country," Jan Kubis, the UN envoy in Afghanistan, said in a statement addressed at the two candidates.
Despite prior security threats, almost 7 million Afghans, 36 percent of them female, turned out for April's inconclusive first-round election.