Afghans Jockeying for Position Ahead of Elections

Parliamentary elections are on the horizon in Afghanistan. Nearly 3,000 candidates will vie in September for seats in the new national assembly.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In Afghanistan tomorrow the names of the candidates running in parliamentary elections will be announced. The election's been postponed several times. And despite a recent increase in violence, it's expected to go ahead in September. It will likely be portrayed as another step in the country's troubled transition to democracy. NPR's Philip Reeves has recently been in Afghanistan, and he has this report.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Asadulla Walwalji is a writer and human rights activist from northeastern Afghanistan. Not long ago he registered to run in the country's parliamentary elections; so did an old rival.

Mr. ASADULLA WALWALJI (Electoral Candidate): (Through Translator) He used to be a jihadi commander, and he's a mullah. You know, he doesn't have educations. And he makes money through political deals.

REEVES: Walwalji's opponent is widely regarded as a local warlord, a man who led the fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and still has his own small, private army. Walwalji says it wasn't long before the letters and phone calls began.

Mr. WALWALJI: (Through Translator) He sees me as his main opponent, and that's why he started to threaten me and threaten people, saying that, `Anybody who votes for Walwalji will be shot dead.'

REEVES: Afghanistan's parliamentary elections are still more than three months away, but the skirmishing has begun. Walwalji, who's an Afghan Uzbek, is among 2,800 candidates competing for seats. The 249 who succeed will form the lower house. That body will have the power to pass budgets, confirm ministerial appointments and approve foreign treaties. But its decisions will be subject to approval from an upper house, where one-third of the members will be appointed by President Hamid Karzai.

(Soundbite of prayers)

REEVES: At the headquarters of the district election organizers for Lagman province, in the foothills of the Himalayas east of Kabul, there seems to be considerable interest in the poll. Officials here say 68 candidates are fighting for just three seats, including nine women apparently undeterred by Afghanistan's long tradition of repressing their gender. Election rules say candidates must run as individuals and not under the banner of political parties. This restriction's attracted criticism from the International Crisis Group. It says a strong pluralist party system would help address increasing public dissatisfaction of the slow pace of reconstruction, rising corruption and insecurity. Spokesperson Joanna Nathan says Afghanistan's history at the hands, for example, of Communist and Islamist fundamentalists, has created a general suspicion of political parties. But Nathan says there may be another reason for keeping them out.

Ms. JOANNA NATHAN (Spokesperson, International Crisis Group): We also feel that the executive would like to see a weak parliament, so they can continue to control the future of Afghanistan.

REEVES: Loose political formations are already taking shape. A number of Karzai's supporters are expected to run. Karzai's strongest opponent in last year's presidential elections, Yonus Qanooni, has formed an opposition group. He says his supporters will compete for all seats, and he claims the government's already meddling.

Mr. YONUS QANOONI: (Through Translator) The government has changed most of the governors of the provinces, the chiefs of police. Their target or their objective for this is to be able to facilitate fraud in the elections.

REEVES: Such allegations are now part of political daily life in Afghanistan. But it's clear the lines are being drawn for a fierce political fistfight. In parts of Afghanistan, such as the south and east, where the central government's especially weak and faces violent opposition from Islamist militants, the elections may prove a hard sell to the population...

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REEVES: ...not, though, in the capital, Kabul. Here the mood appears cautiously positive.

Mr. ABDUL KOHAR(ph) (Shopkeeper): I like to participate in election, and I choose--I put leader for Afghanistan. Every people happy to come a good peace in Afghanistan and a good leader in Afghanistan.

REEVES: That's 25-year-old shopkeeper Abdul Kohar. He can hardly wait to vote for just the second time in his life. Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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