Afghan election next tentative step towards democracy


Afghans vote for their parliament for the first time in more than 30 years, a big step forward but also a major challenge for a country ravaged by war and still troubled by Taliban rebels.

Nearly 12.5 million people are expected to cast their ballots on Sunday at around 26,000 polling booths scattered throughout the rugged Central Asian nation, parts of which are inaccessible except by camel or donkey.

Together with provincial council elections being held at the same time, the polls represent the latest stage in Afghanistan's path to democracy since US-led forces ousted the hardline Taliban regime nearly four years ago.

They follow the introduction of Afghanistan's new constitution in January 2004 and the victory of US-backed leader Hamid Karzai in the country's historic presidential election last October.

But officials warn that Sunday's vote will not solve all the problems of Afghanistan, which remains propped up by international aid, dominated by warlords and corrupted by a booming opium trade.

"You have to see them as a starting point, and that was the same for East Timor, Kosovo or Cambodia," said Peter Erben, head of the joint Afghan-UN Electoral Commission.

"Free and fair is a high bar given the circumstances," said another electoral official. "This election is not going to be perfect, like in every post-conflict country."

Sunday's polls had a troubled genesis, originally being scheduled in October alongside the parliamentary vote and then postponed twice because of security and logistical problems.

District elections were also meant to be taking place on Sunday but have been put off until next year.

Nevertheless, nearly 5,800 candidates from all walks of life are standing for all 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the national assembly, and for the 34 provincial councils, which have a total of 420 seats.

Karzai and the provincial councils will later jointly pick the members of parliament's upper house.

Afghanistan's new electoral system also has important innovations, such as the places reserved for women. They are guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the Wolesi Jirga and 30 percent of those in the provincial councils.

Because of the sheer scale of the exercise, counting will last nearly three weeks and provisional results will be made public around October 10. Definitive results will come out on October 22, after any complaints have been resolved.

But the biggest headaches for the polls could come from elsewhere.

First is the very novelty of democracy itself, in a country where more than 70 percent of the population is illiterate and where warlords and tribal chiefs hold sway over most rural areas.

Political parties were banned by Karzai for the vote, but the Afghan government and its allies in the West have been criticised for allowing numerous militia commanders to stand in the vote.

An internal United Nations study said they made up 16 percent of all candidates.

"Social control is still very strong and civic education is poor," said the chief of the European Union's observation mission in Afghanistan, Emma Bonino.

"In the provinces, many voters don't know why they're voting," said a western diplomat on condition of anonymity.

Second is security. A Taliban insurgency has worsened in the run up to the polls despite the presence of 20,000 US soldiers and more than 10,000 NATO-led peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan.

The Islamic regime was toppled for failing to surrender Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Six electoral candidates have been assassinated in attacks blamed on or claimed by the rebels, joining the toll of 1,100 militants, officials, civilians and Afghan and Western forces who have been killed since the start of the year.

Militants are not the only threat. Numerous candidates have complained of threats, intimidation and vote-rigging by local authorities, warlords and tribal chiefs.

Electoral officials, however, say the Taliban's activities in southern and eastern Afghanistan are unlikely to derail the vote in more than a few districts, although they do not rule out a major headline-grabbing attack.

Of more concern is how to keep Afghanistan on the right path after the elections before the international community starts to pull out of Afghanistan in coming years, said UN Special Representative to Afghanistan Jean Arnault.

"There is a big issue of sustainability," Arnault said.