Tentatively scheduled for April 2005, Afghanistan's parliamentary elections are likely to be much complicated than the recent presidential vote. That's the view of a panel called together by the Asia Society in New York to assess Afghanistan's next steps. Panel experts cited security issues, ethnic tensions and corruption as among the many problems that have to be solved in a brief period of time.
A panel discussion this week by the independent Asia Society found consensus among experts that parliamentary elections are going to be a more significant event in Afghanistan's post-Taliban history because a real transfer of local power will be at stake.
Panelist Robert Templer is the Asia Program Director of the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization focusing on security issues. He said that the lack of security and possible increase of politically motivated violence are major concerns.
"The security issues remain a major problem," Templer says. "It is also going to be much more complicated because real local authority will be at stake at this election in a way that it wasn't in the presidential election. So local forces, local militias are going to be competing more thoroughly to influence the outcome of the parliamentary and council votes."
Another major obstacle is the issue of election boundaries -- they have not been settled. And in the next six months, the panelists say, there is expected to be increasing pressure from different groups to establish new provinces, new boundaries, and more parliamentary seats.
Kimberly Marten, an associate professor of political science at New York's Barnard College and a panelist, says that at the moment an effective electoral law in not yet in place in Afghanistan.
What's worse, Marten points out, is that the state is still not in control of much of the country. In part this is because the state does not provide budgetary funds to the provinces to function. Domestic revenue often comes from illegal trade in poppies and processed opium. Other money results from border trade that is not controlled by central authorities.
"A lack of security for the normal population just in terms of being able to do the thing that you would want to be doing as a member of society actually serves to decrease people's trust in the state," Marten says. "If the state cannot provide for your security then it means that you have no particular reason to give your support to the state. And I think that's one of the things that may blow up in our faces in the parliamentary elections that are coming up where the power division really does matter much more then it was in the presidential elections."
She also says police corruption is endemic. The police are believed to be participating in burglaries, she says, and commerce in the country is very much impeded by this.
But Saman Zia-Zarifi, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division and a panelist, says a strong police force -- as opposed to a strong national army -- is the most viable immediate path for security in the country.
"[Afghans] don't want an Afghan National Army. Afghanistan cannot conceivably have a national army that will be able to engage in a territorial fight with its neighbors," Zia-Zarifi says. "What Afghans need, what they've been talking about for the last three years is a very good police force. And the international community and the Afghan government have gotten that message. They conveyed that message and we're now starting to see in fact the transition in international aid from the Afghan National Army to the Afghan police, which can actually directly help the people, give them [a real reason to support the elections]."
The good news, the panelists say, is that the recent presidential elections clearly show that the Afghan people take their voting responsibilities seriously