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Afghanistan's next challenge: elections 2010

A credible parliament must emerge from Afghanistan's elections this month. Can Janan Mosazai, a young, Western-educated candidate help that happen?

By Staff writer / September 13, 2010

A villager in Qarabagh, Afghanistan, displays images of Janan Mosazai, a local candidate. Some 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 seats.

Dan Murphy/The Christian Science Monitor

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Qarabagh, Afghanistan

The violence engulfing Afghanistan, the paralyzed political institutions in Kabul, and the very real chance that the war-torn country's upcoming elections will be swayed once again by vote-buying and fraud, would seem enough to drive talented young people here as far from politics as they can get.

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After all, running for parliament, in elections scheduled for Sept. 18, is expensive and dangerous. The institution has little real power, compared with that of the president, in the system the United States helped craft after the 2001 invasion. And its current iteration is filled with warlords.

But to listen to Janan Mosazai, an energetic 30-year-old legislative candidate with a political science degree from Canada's Carleton University, the fight for Afghanistan's future begins now, and begins at the ballot box.

"Yes, the parliament has been more or less politically neutered, and significant electoral fraud meant the will of the voters was not demonstrated in the first place," says Mr. Mosazai. "But I still believe a better future is possible, and parliament must become a credible alternative to a government that has failed to present a comprehensive vision of Afghanistan's future for the past eight years."

At stake in this election is crafting a parliament that acts as a check on executive authority and channels the interests of constituents into Afghanistan's politics – more so than the individual winners and losers. Cynicism among average Afghans – who generally believe the current legislature is filled with men and women simply there to line their pockets – is rampant.

How to stand out among 2,500 candidates?

Mosazai is trying to stand out among about 2,500 candidates for 249 seats. In Kabul Province, where he is running, more than 600 people are on the ballot for one of 33 seats. Few of them have a platform and many are thought to be backed by business interests or warlords who have grown rich in the opium and security businesses since the fall of the Taliban.

While they've unleashed a blizzard of posters on Kabul – it's not uncommon for shop owners to wake up to find their doors plastered with different candidates' faces – average people know little about what candidates actually believe.

Observers here say that they expect less ballot stuffing than in the presidential election that returned President Hamid Karzai to power last year, briefly causing a rift with international backers. But Afghanistan is more violent now, and many candidates have gunmen of their own.

"We've had an increase in intimidation and attacks toward the candidates," says Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan. "Most of the threats are from the Taliban, but in some parts of the country, it's been local warlords who are backing candidates as well."

Lowered expectations

Election officials in Kabul say that about 15 percent of polling places probably won't open because of threats. And Western officials are lowering expectations, arguing that if the election has less fraud than the one that returned Mr. Karzai to power, it should be seen as a success.