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Afghanistan: Key Parliamentary, Provincial Elections Approach

Campaign posters in Herat On 18 September, Afghanistan will hold its first parliamentary elections in the last three decades. Elections for local councils will be held on the same day. About 12 million people are registered to vote. They can choose between some 5,800 candidates who are either standing for the 249-seat People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) or for a seat on one of the 34 provincial councils. The elections come amid increasing violence and threats of disruption by Taliban militants.

Prague, 15 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections on 18 September are a key political milestones in the country’s efforts to recover after decades of war.

But analysts say they still will leave Afghanistan with a long way to go in its efforts to solve security and economic problems that continue to hamper reconstruction.

Barnett Rubin is the director of studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation and the author of several books on Afghanistan. He described the elections this way in an interview with RFE/RL.

“They constitute the final step in the implementation of the Bonn agreement, they will give Afghanistan an elected parliament for the first time in a long time and the first one that really has full powers in its history. But the country has still a long way to go before its various institutions are functional,” Rubin said.

Key institutions such as the police and national army are still taking shape and the security situation remains fragile. Attacks by Taliban militants have increased in the southern and eastern regions of the country since March, leaving hundreds dead.

Drug production remains a major problem, too, with Afghanistan continuing to be the world’s largest producer of opium.

Poverty and illiteracy is widespread, especially among women, and civic education is poor.

The United Nations warned last week that Afghanistan's political transition remains far from secure and long-term international commitment is needed.

Still, some analysts say just the fact that Afghanistan is now able to hold parliamentary elections is a reason for renewed optimism in the country’s transition process.

U.S.-based political analyst Dr. Saeed Abdullah Kazim told RFE/RL’s Afghan Service that the elections mark a new beginning.

“Currently in Afghanistan the conditions are not favorable [for democratic elections] but it doesn’t mean that we should not make a start. This beginning is like a school where pupils study and graduate after some time. We can’t expect that the elections will [bring] a parliament that will really serve the people or that democracy will be achieved. We can’t plant a tree in winter and expect to have apples the next day,” Kazim said.

Horia Mosadiq, the country director for the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC), told RFE/RL that the elections are an opportunity for millions of Afghans who are hoping for a better future.

But at the same time, she worries that people involved in right abuses, war crimes, and drug trafficking may win positions in the parliament and provincial councils win because of their money and power.

“We still don’t know which of the candidates will be elected and become members of the parliament. We don’t know whether they will be people who can push Afghanistan toward democracy or whether they will be people who will take Afghanistan to 50 years back. [If ] candidates who are illiterate, or have [no political knowledge], or [candidates] who don’t know themselves what a parliament is, go to the parliament then what can they do for the people of Afghanistan? I think it is really people’s duty to vote for [candidates] who will really serve their benefits,” Mosadiq said.

Political awareness is low in Afghanistan and many of the voters have little information about the work of the future national assembly. Many are expected to vote along tribal lines.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai on 13 September urged voters to support honest candidates.

"To our sisters and brothers I say, on the day we go to the polling centers you have to believe that only God and yourself no one else will [know who you will vote for]," Karzai said.

In some rural areas voters have reportedly been threatened by armed groups and regional commanders to vote for their candidate or face retaliation.

Threats and intimidation are also reported against some of the candidates, especially women.

So far, four election workers and at least four candidates have been killed in attacks blamed on the Taliban.

Candidates running in the polls are not grouped under party lists. But parties have their candidates competing in the race.

Afghan authorities have said that the polls -- which open at 0600 and close at 1600 local time -- will be held under tight security. Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali today said a total of 100,000 Afghan troops have been deployed across Afghanistan for the election.

Counting of votes will begin on 20 September. Provisional results are expected on 10 October. The final results are due to be announced on 22 October.

Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections follow the country’s first direct presidential election in October and the adoption of a new constitution in January 2004.

See also:

Ballot Papers Feature Unique System Of Candidate Symbols

Banning Of Candidates Complicates Parliamentary Ballots

RFE/RL Special: Afghanistan Votes
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.