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Last Updated: Friday, 16 September 2005, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Doubts and fears in Afghan poll

By Andrew North
BBC News, Kabul

Kabul election posters
Huge election lists may confuse many Afghan voters

Kabul has not looked so colourful in a long time.

Posters of the hundreds of candidates running for Sunday's parliamentary and provincial elections now fill any available wall space.

Multi-coloured banners hang from trees and between lampposts.

It is the same story in other towns and cities.

In Kabul, people argue about who has the best poster - the distinctive yellow background and attractive face of Sabrina Saqeb, the youngest candidate, gets many people's vote.

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Particularly in the last week before the campaign ended on Thursday, there has been a growing sense of enthusiasm for the process.

"This is probably the largest amount of popular support I've seen for the idea of establishing a parliament," says Peter Erben, the chief election officer with the joint Afghan and international organising body, comparing his experience here with that of running first elections in places like Bosnia and most recently Iraq.

But the chaos of colour and faces on Afghanistan's streets also illustrates how confusing it will be for voters on Sunday, most of them illiterate.

There are 5,800 candidates nationwide for the two elections, few declaring any political ties that might distinguish them.

I'm not voting this time. They're all warlords
Ahmad Jawad,
Kabul food seller

Some question whether the symbol each candidate has been given to go with their picture on the ballot will help much, especially in Kabul where voters will have to trawl through 390 names.

Voting is likely to take a lot longer than for last year's presidential election.

For all the enthusiasm for the process, many Afghans are also sceptical about what this parliament will achieve.

In the past year since the presidential poll, many people have been complaining about what they say is the slow pace of change, especially with reconstruction.

But it is also because of concerns that many militia commanders, or people with ties to armed groups, have been allowed to stand.

"I'm not voting this time," says Ahmad Jawad, who runs a street food stall in Kabul. "They're all warlords."

'Commander candidates'

That has sometimes seemed to be the main issue in this campaign.

Ballot papers in Bamiyan
Ballot papers are delivered to a village in Bamiyan province

President Hamid Karzai, in a BBC interview, said it was up to Afghans to decide.

"If I consider someone a criminal, then I would not vote for him or her. And the same can be done by every other Afghan," he said.

But concerns about the ability of some "commander candidates" to intimidate people in their local areas remain.

What is more, for all the talk about there being no parties in this process, that is only because they are not listed on the ballot papers.

Afghanistan's old parties - many dating back to the years fighting the Soviet invasion - are still operating and targeting their own specific ethnic and tribal constituencies.

In some cases, candidates have declared these affiliations during their campaigns.

But in many cases, these old parties have also recruited "hidden" candidates and are paying for their campaigns.

So if they win seats, the leaders will expect them to represent the party in parliament.

And when you talk to the leaders of these older parties, there is little discussion about the day-to-day concerns of voters in a country that remains among the five or six poorest in the world.

'Demagogue'

But perhaps this is the way this election should be judged - as a contest between old Afghan politicians and new.

Woman candidate in Kabul
Candidate Suraia Abadi gets her message across in Kabul

There are signs of new voices emerging - especially among younger and female candidates.

In Kabul former journalist, Shukria Barakzai, has been running a very simple street campaign, driving around the city, randomly stopping and talking to voters. It is not something she could do in most rural areas.

"I must show the women [they can have] power. Women can be leaders," she says.

Former planning minister, Ramazan Bashadost, has been campaigning for a parliamentary seat by targeting alleged misspending of foreign aid by the UN and other international organisations.

Critics say he is a demagogue, especially with statements like "the UN is the most corrupt organisation in the world".

But he is winning a following and there is no question he is focusing on a question many Afghans ask - why it is taking so long for them to see the benefits of outside aid.

In the past few days, Afghan mobile phone companies have been sending out text messages encouraging people to vote.

"Go vote and celebrate a new era of hope and freedom," reads one.

In a country still affected by conflict in many areas, holding a second election is something to celebrate.

We will only begin to get an idea of whether it heralds a new era in late October, when final results are due.


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