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Afghans Expected to Focus on Basics in Parliamentary Election

16 September 2005

Afghanistan's parliamentary election Sunday is the country's second democratic vote since the Taleban was ousted from power in 2001. Basic issues such as security and development have dominated campaigning, as the war-torn country tires to rebuild, despite continuing violence.

Campaign slogans echoed across a crowded street in downtown Kabul this week. Candidates running for Afghanistan's new national assembly and provincial councils were making final appeals for support before Sunday's vote.

Outside 37-year-old Abdul Kabir's tiny metal shop in the capital, hundreds, if not thousands of campaign posters are glued to store windows, and are hanging from tree branches.

"There are so many candidates," he said, "it is almost impossible to keep them straight."

About 6,000 people are competing in the local and national elections, a huge challenge to voters and election organizers alike. Despite the size of the task, election officials say, the competition is a terrific sign for a country with no democratic experience, and bodes well for the future.

Sultan Ahmad Baheen is a spokesman for the joint United Nations-Afghan group organizing the vote. "We have candidates from all groups in the country, from the intellectuals to mujahedin, and from the government of the communist regime," he said. "Now, people feel they are in the same level ... this is a good way for the people to feel they are living in a free country."

Afghanistan may be freer than it has been after decades of civil war and rule by the former hard-line Islamic Taleban, but it remains one of the world's poorest and least developed countries.

So, with many basic necessities still lacking, most candidates' platforms remain fairly broad.

General promises on better security, development projects and a stronger economy have tended to dominate the debates, with more specific legislative agendas few and far between. But some candidates have managed to stand out in the crowded field.

Yunis Qanuni, a former minister in President Hamid Karzai's Cabinet, and a runner-up in last year's presidential election, has emerged as one of the potent political forces.

Mr. Qanuni has sharply criticized Mr. Karzai for not doing enough to quell continuing violence. Despite the presence of tens-of-thousands of international and Afghan troops, Taleban militants - ousted from rule in 2001 - and their al-Qaida terrorist allies stage nearly daily attacks, aimed at crippling the fledgling democracy.

Mr. Qanuni also accuses the president of being too quick to accommodate Afghanistan's local warlords. These tribal leaders, who fought in various factions during Afghanistan's two-decade long war, control much of the country outside Kabul. Mr. Karzai has made an effort to include them in government in an effort to overcome divisions and unify the country. Some are running in these elections.

"If the people believe the candidates have sinned, then the people of Afghanistan will not vote for them," said Mr. Qanuni. "But it should be limited by law who can and cannot run in the election."

Election observers generally disagree with Mr. Qanuni, and believe many warlords will emerge victorious. And they acknowledge that some are interested in consolidating their power-bases, rather than promoting democratic government.

Paul Fishstein, deputy director of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, says, with democracy a new concept here, and so many first-time voters, it is hard to project what is politically important to Afghans.

"Whether or not people will make their decisions based on campaign speeches and promises, people are making or, as has been somewhat traditional, people will follow the lead of clan leaders, tribal leaders, people they know," added Mr. Fishstein.

Ultimately, he says, the election itself is not likely to establish a fully functioning democracy in Afghanistan.

There will still be a long way to go before the country settles long-simmering tribal and religious conflicts.

But election officials say there is plenty of good news, too.

Afghanistan's presidential election last year was very successful, and the parliamentary elections are on course to follow suit. Violence has not presented significant disruptions to the process.

And, for the first time, Afghanistan's government is open to women, with one-quarter of the National Assembly's 249-seats set aside for female lawmakers. This is significant progress in a country where, just four-years ago, women could not get an education, or even venture outside their homes without a male relative escorting them.

The future of this country appears destined to take a new course with another major democratic milestone taking place on Sunday.

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