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Afghans hope election offers healing for decades of strife

BARAKIBARAK, Afghanistan—The last time Maulvi Qalamuddin held public office, he was the second-in-command of the religious police who enforced the Taliban's puritanical brand of Islam, lashing women for not covering themselves and beating men for playing music or trimming their beards.

After receiving amnesty, the onetime deputy minister of the now-defunct Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Protection of Virtue is hoping for a second chance.

Qalamuddin is one of 2,707 candidates who are running for 249 seats in the lower house of Afghanistan's parliament on Sept. 18. Some 12.4 million registered voters—nearly half of them women—also will choose members of 34 provincial councils. Those councils will select the members of an upper house of parliament.

The election, which will cost an estimated $149 million, is intended to be the final phase of Afghanistan's transition to democracy, which was laid down at a U.N.-sponsored conference in December 2001 after the U.S.-led military intervention swept the Taliban from power.

Buoyed by a successful presidential contest last year and the huge numbers of candidates and voters who registered for the parliamentary election, U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai, the United States and its allies, and millions of Afghans are hoping that the elections will help heal the religious, political and ethnic hatreds that built up during nearly 30 years of war.

They also hope that the polls will marginalize a rejuvenated Taliban insurgency that's claimed hundreds of lives in the south and east and allow a gradual withdrawal of 30,000 American and NATO troops.

But some diplomats, independent experts and Afghans worry that the parliament could be paralyzed by the very political, ethnic and religious differences it's intended to surmount.

Under the election system chosen by Karzai, candidates are essentially running as independents, although some of Afghanistan's nascent political parties are backing certain ones. Many candidates are running on narrow regional, ethnic, tribal and ideological issues. Winners will likely bring those concerns to the lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga.

For instance, leaders of the country's ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities are expected to demand greater shares of cabinet and senior government posts, which they complain are dominated by majority Pashtuns, Afghanistan's traditional rulers.

And deep hostility lingers between ethnic and religious groups over atrocities for which no one has been held accountable.

"The Wolesi Jirga will likely include members that are viewed as illegitimate among segments of the population, limiting the institution's credibility," said a July 8 report by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. "None of its members will have previous experience in a democratically elected parliament. Former enemies will be forced to interact with each other in a formal political institution for the first time."

"Whatever the outcome of the ... elections, Afghanistan's democratic future is far from ensured," warned the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit group that works on behalf of democracy.

"Due to three decades of fighting ... there will be a big crisis and brawls and the throwing of chairs in the parliament," former Taliban Qalamuddin predicted over a breakfast of flat bread, tea and cookies in his compound in the farming village he dominates in Logar province, about 50 miles south of Kabul. "These different people and groups will defend their own interests."

Qalamuddin is among a number of former Taliban granted amnesty who are running. The militia, which is Pashtun-based, slaughtered large numbers of minorities as it overran most of Afghanistan after driving the feuding anti-Soviet guerrilla groups from Kabul in 1996.

Among the others seeking office are people allegedly linked to the narcotics trade, secular former members of the brutal Soviet-backed communist regime and veterans of the Islamic guerrilla groups that defeated the Soviets in 1989, then killed thousands when they turned on each other after seizing power in 1992.

Many experts expect that the biggest winners will be the former leaders and commanders of the Islamic guerrilla groups that fought the Soviets.

These candidates are the best financed, and they can count on extensive networks of former followers.

"They have the power to reach the people, to intimidate people, to give money to people," complained Mir Ahmad Joyenda, an archaeologist and journalist who espouses civil rights and is running a campaign for a seat from Kabul out of his own pocket. "We will have a weak fragmented parliament with a very large jihadi presence."

Lawmakers who have no experience in parliamentary democracy will confront a daunting workload as soon as they convene. It includes ratifying all of the executive orders Karzai has issued to run the country since he was inaugurated last December.

"The Wolesi Jirga will need to elect a chairperson, vice chairpersons and secretaries; adopt rules of procedure; and make committee assignments," said the National Democratic Institute report. "Under the constitution, the Wolesi Jirga cannot delay a bill for more than a month, placing an unrealistic burden on a new institution, which will, in theory, need to review hundreds of pieces of legislation in a one-month period."

Should potential differences boil over, Karzai will have to use all of his political acumen to prevent them from turning the legislature into a dysfunctional political wrestling ring.

While he seemed to harbor few regrets about the Taliban's excesses, Qalamuddin appeared to be a changed man from the hard-line senior cleric who helped enforce bans on women working outside the home and girls going to school.

He said he'd "be the first person to defend women's rights," seek compromises with political foes and push negotiations to end the Taliban insurgency.

But he insisted that Afghans abide by strict Islamic laws. For example, he said, "Every man needs to have a long beard."

Experts worry that such strong and conflicting views could lead to paralysis in government.

They have other concerns, as well. Karzai chose the so-called Single Non-Transferable Vote system because, like many Afghans, he harbors a fierce distrust of parties because of the roles they played in Afghanistan's bloodshed.

But his decision led to the massive number of independent candidates. And because the best-known and best-funded one or two hopefuls in each province is expected to garner the most votes, the remaining seats will be decided by unrepresentative razor-slim margins.

"Karzai has chosen a system that we don't feel will reflect peoples' will," said Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict-prevention organization.

Narrow outcomes are expected to trigger extensive challenges, and there are fears that losers could resort to violence.

"Relatively small irregularities could have a significant impact on many races, making the potential for disputes and conflict more likely," warned the NDI report.

Only 17 candidates were disqualified from running under a hurried vetting system: 11 for links to illegal armed groups, one for failing to resign from public office and five for including fraudulent signatures on their nomination applications.

None were high-ranking factional chiefs. And none were eliminated because they were implicated in war crimes and corruption or allegedly linked to opium poppy production.

"I think the Afghan people have to make a choice," said U.S. Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann at an Aug. 18 news conference. "You can have honest government or you can have poppies."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AFGHANISTAN-ELECTION

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