KABUL — When voters in the Afghan capital elect a new parliament later this year, they'll face a bewildering choice of more than 700 candidates that threatens to turn the election into a lottery.
The election campaign, which kicks off this week, will be a major test of Afghanistan's political progress and security. Depending on how it's run, the Sept. 18 balloting could be a major advance toward stability, or, if there's fraud on the scale of last year's presidential elections, a big step backward.
The election also will play a big role in determining whether the Obama administration can begin to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan a year from now as President Barack Obama said it will, confident of leaving a stable country behind.
The Independent Election Commission is due Tuesday to release the list of candidates it's cleared to run after its vetting process. Around 2,600, including some 400 women, will stand for the 249 seats in the lower house of parliament. More than a quarter of those candidates will compete in the capital. The commission was expected to exclude a tiny number of would-be candidates.
"When you have 700 candidates, they all have an equal chance. How can you distinguish yourself among 700 candidates? Only the rich can, by buying airtime on TV and buying votes," said Haroun Mir, a political analyst who's running, for the first time, as an independent candidate in Kabul.
In Kabul, which has 3.5 million of the country's 28 million people, 33 seats are up for grabs, all of them at-large. Ballots will look like a book, perhaps 50 pages long, and probably only those listed on the first or last pages stand a good chance, Mir said.
Given the split in votes, a candidate in the capital could be elected with as few as 5,000 votes. Mir is hoping that voters will notice his regular appearances as a political commentator on Afghan television; other candidates are relying on votes from their ethnic groups or strength in particular parts of the city.
In the northern outskirts of Kabul, Muhammad Sharif Mujahid, another first-timer, is relying on his strength in the Shakardara district, where he was born and now lives in a towering, opulent house, as well as his 19-year record as a "holy warrior." A former "mujahedeen" commander, he fought the Russians in the 1980s, in the faction of warlord Burhanuddin Rabbani, and then fought the Taliban in the civil war in the 1990s, losing an arm to a Taliban bullet.
"People from my district are voluntarily raising funds for me to stand. I'm the only candidate in that position," Mujahid said.
Kabul is a magnet for candidates because it's the safest place to run for election and, say cynics, it offers the easiest access to the riches of being close to the seat of power. All members of parliament enjoy legal immunity and carry diplomatic passports.
"People think that if they get into parliament, their money will be safe, and their lives will be safe," said Bakhtar Aminzay, a former senator who's running for the lower house from the city of Gardez in the eastern province of Paktia. "The previous parliament was bad, but it was better than the coming one because it was the first time, and voters had hope. Now people are tired of parliament, tired of the government. Day by day, they see no positive changes."
The parliamentary election will complete a sequence of events that the government of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai hopes will build confidence and provide a path to stability following the presidential poll last year, an international conference on Afghanistan in London in January, the "peace jirga" (traditional gathering of tribes) this month in Kabul, and a second international conference next month in Kabul.
It could also prove to be another big pothole, however.
Karzai has refused to enact a series of electoral changes demanded by domestic critics and by his international backers to address the fraud alleged in the presidential election. Most controversially, Karzai removed the majority that the international community previously had held on the Electoral Complaints Commission, the body that examines charges of vote-rigging.
At the same time, members of parliament have been widely accused of corruption and failing to act as a check on Karzai. In the last year of its tenure, however, the parliament found its voice, rejected some of his choices for ministerial office and condemned his plans to stack the election commission.
"The president is unwilling to reform the electoral system," said Candace Rondeaux, an analyst based in Kabul for the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization. "He wasn't prepared for the opposition we saw in parliament."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY