In Afghanistan, preparations are underway for a special conference that, in six weeks, is to choose a transitional government. Voters have begun electing regional councils that will choose their representatives to the Loya Jirga, or grand national council. One of the districts that voted this week was in the province of Kapisa, 80 kilometers north of Kabul.
Mahmoud-e-Raqi, is a small city of mud-brick homes overlooking the Shumal Plains north of Kabul. The air here is still crisp from the winter. But the broad, flat valley below is turning deep green because of the spring rains and the snow melting from the caps of the surrounding mountains.
Inside the city's cavernous mosque, several hundred local leaders are gathered for an important political meeting.
A special commission is organizing elections for delegates to the national council, or Loya Jirga. One of the organizers, Subghatollah Sanjar, explained the Loya Jirga will form a transitional government that is to hold national elections aimed at ending Afghanistan's 22-year civil war.
"All of you will get together and you will be the ones who will have the right to choose your delegates. There will be no pressure put on you and you can choose," Mr. Sanjar said.
Voters in Mahmoud-e-Raqi are choosing a local council that will elect three of the province's 19 delegates to the national council.
Candidates must be over 22 years old and must prove they are Afghan citizens. They must also sign a statement swearing that they have not engaged in war crimes, human rights violations or illegal activities.
The Loya Jirga is an Afghan tradition that has been used, for centuries, to resolve conflicts. Traditionally, delegates were chosen by local elders. But - in a departure from the past - more than 1,000 representatives of this council are to be elected by the people.
And, in an effort to foster representation of the broader society at-large, there will be 400 appointed delegates, representing special groups like refugees, intellectuals and religious minorities. One hundred sixty of these appointed delegates are to be women, meaning that, for the first time ever, more than ten percent of the council will be female.
One of the participants, former Judge Abdul Ghaforsabori, said, for the first time in years, there is hope.
"I'm very joyous because, in the last 22 years, there was fighting and people could not choose the right delegate. But, now, we get the freedom to choose the delegates that we want," he said.
The head of the commission's delegation, Professor Kazim Ahang of Kabul University, expresses admiration for the people's commitment to the elections.
"It was marvelous. It was really good. This time of year is the time of work for these people. [Yet] when they heard that we are coming here, they left their work and joined us for the process of election," he said.
Elections have been held in nearly a dozen districts, so far. The executive director of the commission, Aziz Ahmad, said these have gone well.
Mr. Ahmad said a district near the northern city, Mazar-I-Sharif has elected a woman to be its delegate.
"Five or six months back the women could not come out of their homes. They were not having any right in the society. So it's a surprise. Within five or six months we see such tremendous changes in the society of Afghanistan. It's a wonderful thing," Mr. Ahmad said.
Some Afghan leaders complain that they are being excluded from the process. And, some people fear voters will be intimidated by the militia that remain strong in some parts of the country. But Mr. Ahmad said he the local elections have made him optimistic.
"It shows that the people understood their rights and they could select their representative, whatever they want," Mr. Ahmad said.
The regional councils are to be chosen by May. They will then elect delegates to the national council, so that the Loya Jirga can open in June.