Campaigning in Afghanistan Involves Bribes, Gangland Politics and Murder

VIDEO: Despite Taliban, more women are putting their lives on the line for
WATCH Afghan Women Campaign Despite Kidnappings

This city of pine trees and traffic lights is one of the safest in Afghanistan, where the fear and anxiety that dominates most of this country barely exists. But even here, Saturday's parliamentary election has been fought violently and brutally, not only with candidates' workers killed and female candidates threatened, but also with village-sized bribes, gangland-style politicking, and interference from neighboring countries.

The United Nations recently pointed out that Afghanistan "isn't Switzerland" and shouldn't be held to the same standards. But American and Afghan officials here fear the risks of this election might outweigh the possible benefits.

VIDEO: Despite Taliban, more women are putting their lives on the line for Afghanistan.Play
Afghan Women Campaign Despite Kidnappings

Already, the intimidation has created a kind of cage-fighting primary that has forced some candidates out. And election observers predict that after the vote, a massive number of complaints and razor-thin election margins will overwhelm the fragile fraud oversight board, challenging the legitimacy of the results.

"If Afghans do not see this election as legitimate, then they will never trust the democratic process again," Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a leading member of an opposition party, said.

A record number of women are running this year, but ask Fauzia Gialani if that's translated into a more permissive atmosphere. Perhaps more than any other candidate, this election season has been terrorizing. Five of her campaign workers were kidnapped. She was called and told to drop her campaign, and then called for a trade: release five militants in exchange for her workers. When she didn't give in to either request, the five were lined up, hands bound, and executed.

Some of the violence across the country is clearly the work of insurgents, who have distributed night letters threatening anyone who votes or participates in the election, in which every parliament seat is up for grabs. But candidates and Western observers also believe the violence is candidate-on-candidate. In Gialani's case, Western officials wonder aloud whether the family of her estranged husband – also a candidate in Herat – ordered the hit.

Either way, a lack of law and order in many districts across the country has allowed whoever is behind the violence to create an even more deadly climate than last year's presidential election. This year at least 23 candidates or their aides have been killed, according to Afghan observers.

Gialani welcomed an ABC News team to witness two days of meetings and politicking. She attends a few small campaign events, but all are inside because it is too dangerous for her to hold open air rallies. She travels in a pick-up truck with four gunmen in the back. She drives quickly between her office and her home. There are no unscheduled "retail" events. As an aside to one visitor, she says she will see him in a couple of weeks, "If I make it that far." She is constantly accused of being, in effect, a prostitute.

Afghan Elections Endanger Candidates and Their Families

The violence and the accusations have taken a clear toll on her and her family.

"Every day I receive threatening calls saying you have converted to Christianity, or you and your brothers have become infidels. My whole family is suffering, and it's not safe for any of them to leave the house," she told ABC News in her living room earlier this week.

"I don't feel safe," she continues. "I always have guards with me and I wouldn't dare leave the city to campaign."

If Gialani is Herat's establishment candidate, Naheed Ahmedia Farid is the young upstart. She is only 24, the daughter-in-law of a prominent gynecologist who helps lead Herat's educated middle class. She received a masters degree at George Washington University and studied in Europe before returning to Afghanistan.

"I want to be a voice for women," she says when asked why she is running for office. "Because there was about 30 years, 31 years that women didn't have any voice. I think we have to change the situation for women and I want to be a member for that reason."

Farid's enthusiasm is unending. She holds rallies for hundreds of women, many of them lifting their burqas to cheer her on, and then stands at the exit to hand everyone a freebie with her face on it. She speeds off to a meeting with college students in her office, and then quickly heads to a private home to ask for support.

She wears green everywhere – a color that represents progress in Afghanistan – and is often wrapped in a beautiful chador, a full body covering popular in Iran, only 30 miles from this western Afghan city.

But she, too, faces the same kinds of intimidation and threats that Gialani and all female candidates suffer. She says she received calls telling her to drop out. She is the subject of similar rumors. While she was in the United States, a man in one audience asks, did she convert to Christianity? She travels with armed guards. Her campaign events are all held indoors, some down back alleys.

And her posters have been defaced, perhaps because she is Shiite, perhaps only because she is a woman. On one poster, her face has been cut out entirely. The Taliban never allowed women to be photographed.

"The situation of the security is very hard these days," she says in the back seat of her car in English, which she speaks well but not fluently. She speaks to an ABC News reporter sitting in the front seat. She said it would be too dangerous for her to be seen with him in the back seat. Earlier, she refused to speak English at all in a public place.

"These days it's very sensitive for us, especially for women, especially for women like me. People think I'm winning the election," she continues. "That's why there might be enemies that don't want me to win."

Afghan Candidate Says Rivals Bribes Entire Villages

Gialani has had to face another kind of threat from neighboring Iran. She says Iranian "agents" approached her father-in-law and offered to finance her campaign. She says he refused, but she insists at least two candidates in Herat accepted the help.

Across Herat, residents say their neighbor to the west constantly interferes in the local politics, and local police commanders accuse Iran of helping finance the Taliban. American military officials in Afghanistan are less accusatory, saying they have seen evidence that Iranians help fund insurgents, but do not know whether they are sent across the border on behalf of the Iranian government.

Farid's refusal of help has put her at a huge economic disadvantage. She says some of her male competitors have spent at least $5 million, an allegation confirmed by Western observers in Herat and Kabul. One candidate has used his money as a quid-pro-quo, offering to build a mosque and a bridge for a village in exchange for all of their votes.

But not all the money has come with such peaceful strings. Western officials say they have documented instances where armed groups loyal to one candidate have moved into villages, threatening residents if they refused to vote for the candidate. With little law enforcement capacity in the outskirts of the province, there's been little to stop them.

"This has been an extraordinarily hard fought race, " one Western official says. "Candidates are using every tool in their toolbox, and some are very sharp."

Gialani chose to defend herself, in part, by making a deal with Ismail Khan, the local warlord who endorsed her. Khan is a notorious abuser of women's rights; he has been known to send police to arrest women wearing clothes that were not conservative enough.

"I have a goal to achieve and I will get to my goal by whatever means that I can," Gialani says when challenged about the Khan endorsement. "We have no choice. Even if the person who killed my colleague can help achieve our goals, we have to compromise with him."

Compromise and conflict dominate this election. Hours after that interview, a bomb exploded outside the Herat sports stadium, where a concert had just been held by Farhad Daryaa, a famous Afghan singer and a United Nations ambassador of peace.

For Farid, the bombs and the strange bedfellows are something she has learned to put up with.

"We have to be brave and we have to accept any risks that we are going to have," she says. "There's a lot of obstacles and a lot of problems that we have. But I am fighting to reach our goals."