Their relatives were killed. Now they’re running for parliament

An Afghan Sikh, a female engineer and a 54-year-old from Nangarhar have seen violence and now campaign for security.

Election posters of parliamentary candidates are installed on a street while a boy walks past in Jalalabad
At least 10 candidates have already been killed in the run up to the October 20 parliamentary elections, with the Taliban promising further attacks [Parwiz/Reuters]

Narinder Singh Khalsa’s father, Avtar Singh Khalsa, was killed last July in an attack claimed by ISIL in Afghanistan’s eastern city of Jalalabad.

Now, the 38-year-old Sikh Afghan is continuing his father’s legacy and contesting the parliamentary elections on October 20.

Avtar was a long-time leader of the tiny Sikh community, comprising fewer than 300 families in Afghanistan, and the only Sikh candidate in the upcoming polls.

After he and 19 members of his community died in the July suicide bombing, the Sikh community called on Narinder to represent them by running in place of his father.


Education, land rights and security for his community top Narinder’s agenda.

“I want to stand up for the rights of my people, I want to get their rights from the government and from the international community, because we have suffered for years,” Narinder told Al Jazeera.

“The people, our Afghan people, have to know that there are not just Muslims in this country. Whoever is living here, regardless of his or her religious background or ethnicity, is an Afghan.” 

Across Kabul, candidates’ posters carry messages pledging to improve security, root out corruption and reform education.

More than 2,500 candidates are running in the third parliamentary election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, including 418 women.

They are competing for the 250 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament.

But the candidates face continuous risks, with the Taliban promising to disrupt the “bogus elections”.

People who are trying to help in holding this process successfully by providing security should be targeted and no stone should be left unturned for the prevention and failure [of the election],” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement last week.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) said in a statement on Wednesday that at least 10 candidates have been killed since July.

Abdul Jabar Qahraman was killed in his office on Wednesday by a bomb planted under his chair, in the southern Helmand province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

The group has repeatedly warned politicians to withdraw from the ballot, but Kabul’s independent candidate, engineer Zakia Wardak, says she has “seen it all” when it comes to violence in the country and will not step down.

“My father, General Abdul Ali Wardak, was killed during the communist regime in 1978 in Afghanistan,” she said, referring to the years when the Afghan communist party launched a coup against President Mohammed Daoud, killed him and took power until 1992.

“And my brother Zalmay Wardak, who was a former Afghan National Army (ANA) general, and a candidate for this year’s parliamentary elections, was mysteriously murdered at his home in Kabul in August.”

Zakia Wardak hopes to win a seat so she can 'open doors of the parliament to Afghans in need' [Courtesy of Zakia Wardak]
Zakia Wardak hopes to win a seat so she can ‘open doors of the parliament to Afghans in need’ [Courtesy of Zakia Wardak]

Wardak, who also lost her husband in an accident in Kabul in 2011, encourages young girls to pursue education and “face difficulties in life with bravery”.

“Men are responsible to provide for their families and when you lose men, you become helpless. The only way out of helplessness is to be educated and strong. This is why I will fight for education for women if I win a seat in the parliament.”

Zakia, who is head of the Women Engineers Association in Kabul, wants to “open doors of the parliament to Afghans in need”.

As she campaigns, she reminds Afghans of their right to vote and the impact they can have.

“I want people to know who they are voting for, do some background research on the candidate. Has the candidate helped anyone before? It is important for them to know the power of a single vote.”

I am not willing to vote because due to security and corruption, the election, just like before, won't be transparent. When a parliament member is selected, they don't do anything for us.

by Zmaria, 50, a taxi driver in Kabul

In spite of the candidates’ enthusiasm, Afghans have little faith in the political process.

The polls were originally set to be held in early 2015 following presidential elections in 2014, but were delayed to July 7, 2018, and then pushed to October 20 due to security fears and reforms in voter registration.

“I am not willing to vote because due to security and corruption, the election, just like before, won’t be transparent,” Zmaria, 50, a taxi driver in Kabul, told Al Jazeera.

“When a parliament member is selected, they don’t do anything for us and only work on developing their own lives and businesses.

“Why should we trust them when there is a war going on in the country and people are dying every day in the attacks, will they speak to the Taliban or Daesh (ISIL) to not kill us?”

According to local media, turnout is expected to be lower than the 8.9 million registered to vote.

An MP helps with making laws and overseeing the government. They receive a monthly salary of between $2,400 and $2,600. They also get immunity from prosecution and imprisonment.

‘Being a politician is not easy in Afghanistan’

Abdul Rahman Shams, a 54-year-old candidate from Nangarhar, said Afghans have “suffered and sacrificed so much for decades” and deserve sincerity from politicians.

Shams’s cousin, Abdul Zahir Haqqani, the director of religious affairs and Hajj pilgrimage department, was targeted and killed when a suicide bomber walked up to his car and detonated his explosives in March in  Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s capital. 

Haqqani was a vocal critic of the Taliban and ISIL.

Abdul Rahman Shams says Afghans deserve sincere politicians   [Courtesy of Abdur Rehman Shams]
Abdul Rahman Shams says Afghans deserve sincere politicians  [Courtesy of Abdur Rehman Shams]

“Being a politician is not easy in a country like Afghanistan. I have seen so much in the past decades; children left orphans, women widowed and so much more, but I can’t hide from my responsibilities, I will fulfil my promises and try to help,” he said.

“People have put their faith in me. I hope all of us gather under one flag united and strong.”

The elections will be held in 27,000 polling stations in 5,100 polling centers in 33 of 34 provinces. The vote for Ghazni province’s 11 seats has been delayed until next year due high security threat

At least 2,000 polling stations threatened directly by the Taliban will remain closed.

The fighters said in their statement that teachers should prevent their schools from being used as polling stations, warning of attacks.

Local media reported some 50,000 soldiers will be deployed across Afghanistan to provide security.

The parliamentary elections are being seen as a dry run for the presidential vote, expected to be held in April 2019.

“War has negative effect on a society, it affects the economy and kills positivity,” said Zakia Wardak, the female candidate in Kabul.

“I know we are in danger every second, but we love our country and we are here to stand beside our people.”

With reporting by Emran Feroz in Kabul, Afghanistan

Source: Al Jazeera