There are still months to go before Afghans go to the polls to elect a new president on April 5. But there are already questions over how credible the vote will be.
Afghan and Western observers alike have expressed concerns that the widespread fraud that marred the 2009 presidential election could reoccur because of worsening security and the illicit trade in voter cards.
And even at this early stage, a major complication has emerged: many of the 17 presidential candidates disqualified by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) on October 22 have accused the electoral body of unlawfully barring them from the vote.
Afghanistan's presidential election promises to be the country's first-ever democratic transfer of power. It is seen as vital to the country's stability, particularly with the majority of foreign combat troops expected to withdraw by the end of 2014. Western leaders have warned that billions of dollars in aid will not materialize unless the election is credible.
The IEC, which only approved 10 candidates from the 27 who had applied, said disqualified candidates simply failed to meet new, tougher criteria.
Each candidate must be at least 40 years old, collect 100,000 signatures of support from 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, and deposit 1 million afghanis ($18,000) with the IEC. Candidates also cannot have a criminal record or retain citizenship from another country.
But most of the barred candidates say they have met the criteria and have questioned the impartiality of the IEC and the transparency of the vetting process.
One eliminated presidential candidate, former member of parliament Daud Sultanzoi, says the IEC has failed to fulfill its obligation to provide each candidate with a written explanation detailing why their candidacy was rejected.
"According to the election laws and Afghan Constitution, we should have been informed why we were disqualified. [The IEC's decision not to do so] is surprising to us. We are trying to solve the problem," Sultanzoi said.
Profiles: Afghanistan's Presidential Hopefuls
Another candidate who has voiced his concern is former Commerce Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi. He told journalists in Kabul on October 23 that he met all the criteria set by the IEC, leading him to believe the electoral body had other motives for disqualifying him.
"I reject the so-called reasons used to reject many candidates. We condemn the lack of transparency and unprofessional actions of the Independent Election Commission. We think their actions are a severe threat to the transparency of next year's election," Ahadi said.
Growing Concerns About Vote
Disqualified candidates have vowed to form a coalition and fight for their rights.
Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, says the early signs do not bode well for the election.
He says that allegations of fraud, reports of candidates using illegal means of collecting signatures of support, and a lack of transparency are fuelling growing concern about the legitimacy of the crucial vote.
"The Afghan population is concerned about a repeat of 2009, maybe not in the exact same manner but in a much more sophisticated and underhanded manner. Any attempt at trying to manipulate the election process by any side will have long-term and dire consequences," Samad said.
The Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), an independent election watchdog, expressed its alarm in a statement released on October 23.
"TEFA believes the Independent Election Commission should clearly state the disqualification reasons to the candidates and to the public so it can respond to the questions and concerns raised," it said.
Even in July, when the nine members of the IEC were selected, questions were raised about their ability to be impartial. All the members were handpicked by President Hamid Karzai, who failed to include any members of civil society.
Although the president has said he will remain impartial in the vote, observers at the time suspected Karzai's choices were intended to support his favorite candidate in the election. The president is stepping down after the vote because he cannot seek a third term in office under the Afghan Constitution.
The IEC said all disqualified candidates could lodge an appeal with the Election Complaints Commission until November 11, and any nominee found to have been unfairly ruled out would be able to run.
The current list of 10 candidates is expected to be whittled down further. The IEC will publish a final list on November 16. Official campaigning is expected to begin in December.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report