TORKHAM, AFGHANISTAN — A mullah, a feminist, a jihadi, and a communist: It sounds like the start of an Afghan joke, but instead, it is the makings of Afghanistan's first-ever elected parliament.
These are some of the 5,700 candidates running for seats in parliament and provincial assemblies around Afghanistan. Their diversity is both an endorsement of democracy, and a challenge to its very existence.
When Afghans line up to vote on Sunday, choosing 249 men and women from these thousands, they will be selecting from candidates who hold conflicting views over concepts as fundamental as the very definition of democracy itself.
"This is a project of decades and generations, not months and years," says Kit Spence, a senior analyst at the National Democratic Institute in Washington. "The good thing is that people are buying in to the concept in a strong way."
Kabul and most towns are papered over with campaign posters, a sign that the Afghans are taking this election seriously. It is the presence of so many faces - of men and women - that serves as a striking reminder of how much has changed since the days of the Taliban, when depictions of the human face were forbidden.
Yet this campaign has also seen spates of violence, reminders that Afghanistan is still emerging from 23 years of occupation and civil war. Six candidates and four election workers have been killed thus far, and scores continue to receive death threats. In Uruzgan Province, Taliban fighters killed seven people for carrying voting cards, according to Gov. Jan Mohammad Khan.
Safiya Sadiqi, an energetic liberal candidate from the conservative province of Nangrahar, was attacked with Kalashnikovs, grenades, and rockets last week. None of her campaign workers were hurt, but some villagers were injured. She now travels less openly and with government gunmen.
Yet her moderate Islamic, antiwarlord message remains as strident as before.
"Those people who rob you, who kill your children, if they give you food, will you give him your vote?" she says to a small group in the town of Torkham, mocking a nearby rally of a warlord where some 5,000 people have gathered with the promise of free food. "If you elect him ... the winner will be the one who killed your rights."
Perhaps her bravest words, and the ones that stick in the craw of many ethnic Pashtuns here, are when Mrs. Sadiqi - an official from the Ministry of Rural Development - talks of the cruelty of many Afghan traditions toward women.
She describes seeing a pregnant woman being driven to the hospital. According to tradition, the male relatives sat in front, and the pregnant woman was forced to sit, obviously under great pain, in the trunk. "I asked the men, how can they do this? This is not right. Show me where in the Koran it says you should do this."
The crowd of around 300 men clap politely. Sadiqi's case may seem hopeless, but she is probably one of the strongest female candidates in her province, and is seen as a likely winner of one of the four seats here that are reserved for women.
But if she wins, so will many others with completely different visions.
Some, like former Taliban deputy interior minister Mullah Khaksar, want to bring back sharia, where major decisions are made according to Islamic scripture, as interpreted by religious scholars.
Some, like Kabir Ranjbar - a former advisor to pro-Soviet President Najibullah - want to bring a more equitable distribution of resources to the poor, borrowing pages from the former Soviet Union.
Some say that Afghanistan must be ruled by technocrats, while others, like mujahideen leaders Younus Qanooni and Abdulrab Rasul Sayaaf, say it must be ruled by those who fought the jihad, no matter their educational achievement.
Many, perhaps the majority, pose as opponents of President Hamid Karzai, and some demand the removal of US troops as a sign that Afghanistan can now run itself.
With such ideological diversity, parliament is likely to be much better at staking out positions than in getting anything done.
"Today, power is still held by warlords," says Mr. Ranjbar, the head of the Union of Lawyers of Afghanistan, and a parliamentary candidate from Kabul. "In the new parliament, most of the time will be spent getting your own people into the cabinet, and this fighting will take Afghanistan backward."
Meanwhile, high up in the Paghman valley above Kabul, a very different man with a very different vision for Afghanistan is speaking in a mosque full of some 3,000 men. Surrounded by gunmen, Abdulrab Rasul Sayaaf strokes his long white beard and speaks of a glorious future for Afghanistan, led by "men of good Islamic character" who have fought nearly 23 years to get rid of men like Ranjbar.
"Those who fought for the freedom of this country are worthy to take part in its government," says Sayaaf, after a long discourse on Islamic government. "If the mujahideen are not able to act in a political way, those people who looted Afghanistan before ... will play the same roles."
Almost everyone agrees that the first few months, if not years, of Afghanistan's experiment with democracy will be messy. The fact that so many political factions remain armed makes it possible for political disputes to turn deadly.
Sadiqi has survived one such attack, but says she will press on. "I trust in my vision," she says. "The day before yesterday, they attacked us, but we are here today."