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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?

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The system that has emerged since Karzai was appointed in 2001 has concentrated most authority in the executive branch, with parliament occasionally holding up cabinet appointments but having little active role in shaping budgets or channeling spending.

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Voting has been polarized as well, with ethnic Hazaras voting for Hazaras, ethnic Pashtuns voting for Pashtuns, and so on. Most Afghans believe vote-selling has been rampant within the current parliament.

The 'original sin' of post Taliban Afghanistan

The first task for Mosazai – if he gets elected – will be to create a bloc of like-minded legislators who will reach across ethnic divides, steer clear of corruption, and push for a chamber with legislative teeth.

A Western diplomat in Kabul, who requested anonymity, argues that while fraud is almost certain to mar the election, the stakes aren't particularly high. "The parliament doesn't really matter," the diplomat says. "You could say in some ways that creating such a strong presidency was the original sin of post-Taliban Afghanistan."

Mosazai says he wants to work on building real political parties to cut through the welter of voices in the legislature and push for a constitutional court that can interpret vague clauses in the current Constitution. He doesn't have stars in his eyes about quick change, and is a critic of a system that has stood in the way of the formation of political parties – the vast majority of candidates are running as independents – and placed so much power with Karzai.

"Broad-based national political parties are essential to our future," he says. "Why haven't they emerged in the past eight years? A failure of Afghan leadership."

He says the US shares some of the blame, speaking of "the US decision early on to pursue a policy of short-term, shortsighted alliances with political-military groupings across the country rather than investing in a strong civil society."

Mosazai is up against a former anti-Soviet militia commander named Anwar Khan who's a member of parliament. While the electoral system has provincewide voting, in practice, candidates are trying to pick up votes in areas where they're well known, have strong ties, or both.

Mosazai's ties

Mosazai grew up in Kabul, but his family village is Qalay Dana, in Qarabagh district. His grandfather was one of the first men to get a formal education – running off to a madrasa before returning home a respectable Muslim scholar. His father went to university in the old Soviet Union, where he earned a geology degree and returned to teach at Kabul University. All along, the family kept strong ties to the area.

Qarabagh is about an hour's drive north of Kabul and the district nestles up against the vast US military base at Bagram. But once off main roads and on the dirt tracks that rumble along Soviet-built irrigation canals and dry riverbeds near the summer camps of nomads, it feels a world away. It's dominated by multifamily, mud-walled compounds, where the remains of Soviet bombs have been fashioned into fences to keep goats out of gardens and grape orchards.

In a day campaigning in the area, which involves meeting with 30 or so men in a series of villages, Mosazai hears complaints that money appropriated to pave roads appears to have vanished and that Mr. Khan, elected five years ago, has failed to build schools or medical clinics. "We haven't seen him since the last campaign," says one local elder. "We haven't seen him since. I've heard he's built himself a house in Kabul and that's about it."