Afghan election opens amid fears of violence

Low voter turn-out feared as insurgents block roads and threaten suicide attacks

The landmark presidential election in Afghanistan opened today amid fears that the polls will be undermined by low turnout caused by violence and intimidation.

After eight years of war, it was hoped that the poll would give legitimacy to the fragile Afghan government, but the Taliban have shown that they still control much of the country.

Insurgents vowed to disrupt the ballot, and yesterday blocked the roads in and out of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, reducing traffic by 80 per cent despite a huge British military operation just outside the city.

Three gunmen stormed a bank in Kabul, while the Taliban warned that 20 suicide bombers were planning attacks in the capital.

The intimidation is focused on the southern Pashtun belt, which is bad news for President Hamid Karzai, who needs ethnic Pashtun votes to win a second term.

If he does not win outright in what is looking like an increasingly tight race, then there will be a presidential run-off between the two leading candidates. This second round will have massive security implications.

Habibullah Khan, the district governor of Nad-e-Ali, the most populated area in Helmand, said that most people in the district were unlikely to vote.

He said: "They are scared. The Taliban tell them they will cut off their heads, or their hands if they vote, and people do not want to take the risk."

"The Taliban have been warning people not to travel; not to go to work; not to open their shops on election day. They have laid mines on roads, they have threatened people and unfortunately this is likely to work."

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.