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.
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."
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.
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.
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 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."