Campaign Ends as Afghanistan Readies for Vote

KABUL - Campaigning for Afghanistan's parliamentary elections formally ends at midnight Wednesday, when thousands of candidates must take a break from hustings ahead of Saturday's poll.

In cities across the country, almost every available inch of public space has been festooned with election posters showing photographs of the candidates and the symbol that will appear next to their names on the ballot paper.

More than 2,500 candidates have been campaigning for the 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, in the country's second such election since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC), which is overseeing the poll, said a "silence period" would prevail until voting closes at 4:00 pm (1130 GMT) on Saturday.

"If the electoral campaign is continued during the silence period, any such activity will be deemed as serious electoral violation," the IEC said in a statement.

Voters -- estimated to number 10.5 million -- will cast their votes at almost 6,000 polling centres nationwide. More than 1,000 centres will not open because security in those areas cannot be guaranteed, authorities have said.

Campaigning was launched in June, when candidates began plastering city streets with posters -- on walls and fences, roundabouts and shop fronts, trees and even overhead power lines.

With illiteracy rates close to 80 percent, candidates' mandatory symbols are crucial and include everything from horse shoes to flowers, vases, computers, books, prayer mats, pomegranates, birds and scales.

Campaigning has intensified in recent days, with more television advertisements and vans mounted with loudspeakers cruising Kabul's streets.

With 68 seats in the Wolesi Jirga set aside for women, 406 female candidates are standing, many of them defying traditional mores to show their faces on posters and name cards that many candidates have been handing out.

In some cities, including Kabul, western Herat and Mazar-I-Sharif in the north, some women's posters have been torn or painted over, reflecting the conservatism of the pious Islamic society.

The Taliban have conducted a campaign of violence and intimidation against the vote, particularly targeting women candidates, observers and human rights watchdogs have said.

Officials say women are the most vulnerable to Taliban violence, many receiving regular death threats, and New York-based Human Rights Watch said this month: "Women candidates are facing the highest level of intimidation."

Past elections had seen women withdraw from public life even after winning seats, said the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura.

"Often women after they were elected somehow mysteriously started saying that they had health problems or they had maternity which they had to address. What was behind that? Intimidation." he told AFP.

Seats vacated by women were generally taken by men, he said, until election authorities were persuaded to introduce a quota of 68 seats.

Amid fears that the Taliban could mar election day with attacks on polling stations, tens of thousands of police and troops have been deployed across the country, backed by international troops, the defence ministry said Wednesday.

Concerns about fraud have also intensified following reports that election officials had seized 3,000 fake voter registration cards in troubled Ghazni province.
Intelligence agents "seized 3,000 forged voting cards printed in Pakistan" on Tuesday, Waheedullah Osmani, IEC head in south-central Ghazni, said.

The possibility of fraud has raised the spectre of last year's presidential poll, which was characterised by massive fraud, mostly in favour of President Hamid Karzai, who was returned for a second five-year term.

Afghan and Western observers have said that reforms introduced following last year's debacle had reduced the risk of fraud, including publishing the list of polling stations a month ahead of the vote.

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