Monday, May 23, was the last day to register as a candidate for Afghanistan's new parliament. The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) extended the deadline by six days in Nangarhar province and three days in the other 33 provinces to accommodate more candidates. The eastern province of Nangarhar had been disrupted recently by anti-U.S. riots over the alleged desecration of the holy Koran by U.S. soldiers.
So far nearly 6,000 people have registered for the lower house of parliament and the provincial councils. Of the total candidates, 2,824 are for the lower house and 3,102 people for the provincial council. Out of the 2,824 candidates, 338 are women. JEMB Chairman Bismillah Bismil hoped the registration extension would make it easier to add more candidates, including more women, to the ballot. According to Bismil, 124 of the 240 provincial council seats should be reserved for women. So far only 58 women have registered for those races (JEMB Report, May 24).
Twice postponed, parliamentary elections are the last stage of the December 2001 Bonn Agreements that established the Afghan interim government. The elections, set for September 18, are considered vital to the process of normalization in Afghanistan. Many issues await parliamentary approval, including a vote of confidence on the government itself. Another vital issue for the parliament to consider is the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Although on May 24 President Hamid Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement in Washington with the U.S. administration, it must be ratified by the new parliament. Before leaving for Washington President Karzai summoned delegates to the last emergency Loya Jirga -- the Constituent Assembly -- to discuss the agreement with the United State. His presentation received a lukewarm response (Daily Outlook Afghanistan, May 22).
The list of candidates, although not final, is already a virtual "Who's Who" of Afghanistan. Some of President Karzai's rivals in the December 2004 presidential election are running for parliament from various regions, including the capital, Kabul. The presence of powerful personalities in the parliament will ensure a powerful opposition that will balance the government's strong hand. The Constituent Assembly had hotly debated the establishment of a strong presidential system, because some members thought it would lead to dictatorship by one person. Observers believe that the parliament will be a forum for showdown between powerful regional leaders and the government.
Opposition figures are already forming at least two alliances. The first one, which was created about a month ago, is headed by Yunus Qanooni, the second-place finisher in the presidential election. Known as the National Understanding Front, it also includes Haji Mohammad Muhaqqiq, the third-place candidate. A second opposition alliance, the National Democratic Front of Afghanistan, comprises 13 parties and groups. The front has chosen some lofty goals for itself, including defending the country's independence and national unity, strengthening democracy, participating in parliamentary elections, respecting laws, and promoting freedom of expression. The alliance also plans to eliminate corruption from government offices and increase public sector salaries. (Daily Eslah, in Pashto, May 24).
One interesting development from the registration process is the presence of female candidates for both the lower house of parliament and the provincial council. This is a major advance in a country where, just over three years ago, no woman dared to leave her home without a chaperon. In some areas women are demanding even greater participation in the elections. In Ghazni province about 70 miles south of the capital, there have been calls to set aside more parliamentary seats for women. The province will have 11 parliamentary and 19 provincial council seats, of which three and five seats will be reserved for women, respectively. (Daily Erada in Dari, May 24).
Several radical Islamic figures are becoming a presence in the parliamentary elections. In particular, Mawlawi Wkil Ahmad Mutawakil, the foreign minister of the ousted Taliban regime, has registered as a candidate. He took advantage of the amnesty offer made by President Karzai's government in ordr to join the political process. Mutawakil filed his papers on May 18 in Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold where he plans to stand. (Kabul Times, May 21).
The campaign for parliamentary elections kicks off at an increasingly uncertain time, as an insurgency is emerging in Afghanistan. Once again a foreign aid worker, a 32-year-old Italian, Clementina Cantoni, has been kidnapped by elements of what is known as an insurgency movement. The insurgency, broadly speaking, includes the Taliban, al- Qaeda, and all the elements that oppose the U.S.-led coalition forces and the new Afghan government. They want to disrupt the elections, which will be the first open election in more than three decades. Although the challenges facing the parliamentary and the provincial councils elections are enormous, the Afghans and their allies are determined to go ahead with the process. The alternative is unimaginable for both.