Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on Saturday will be another key test for the embattled central government and observers are expressing concern about irregularities before the polls even open.
VOA talked to three veteran Afghan watchers about what is at stake, what problems are likely to disrupt the vote and how the results might affect the balance of power.
Teresita Schaffer is director of the South Asia Program at CSIS and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia. Karl Inderfurth is a professor at George Washington University and former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs. And Mark Schneider is Senior Vice President of the International Crisis Group.
Is the Afghan government prepared for this election?
Schaffer: "In a sense you can say it's going to be a decade before Afghanistan is prepared to hold this vote, but they don't have the luxury of not doing it. They have held one parliamentary election in the period after the fall of the Taliban government. This one has been postponed once already. It's obviously not an ideal situation for holding an election but I think they are in a position to give it a try."
Schneider: "I think we're going to see a replay of last year's flawed presidential elections. The current situation is bad in terms of security and that's going to have a significant impact on the ability of the electoral commission to carry out the election."
Inderfurth: "The obstacles are great, but [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and the international community has agreed that he should go ahead with these elections. So whether or not this is the best time for an election or not, they are proceeding."
Saturday's elections are for the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament, which is responsible for lawmaking and voting on presidential actions. What role has it traditionally played in the country's politics?
Schaffer: "Afghanistan has never had a strong centralized government but, before the Soviet invasion, it did for many years have a functioning parliament. And so this is a part of government that Afghans are familiar with. It's also one of the few institutions that provides some balancing power to the power of the president and the non-elected, but very real power of some of the local personalities that are dominant in different parts of Afghanistan."
Many people are predicting irregularities in the polls. Are there any hopeful signs about the credibility of the vote?
Schneider: "I was in Afghanistan in July and spoke to members of the independent human rights commission. They already had seen flaws in the vetting process of candidates. Some 350 candidates or so had been identified as having links to illegal armed groups, and yet they were permitted to become candidates. In the end, only about 30 people were barred from running. The good news side is there are a lot of women and young people who have registered as candidates, there is a lot of enthusiasm about the elections and obviously having parliament is extremely important as a branch of government in a democracy."
Schaffer: "This is not a clone of the presidential election. It's more difficult in some ways, but less polarizing in other ways. More difficult because it has to take place in 249 different constituencies that have 249 different races and so it's a humongous management task. What makes it less polarizing is precisely the fact that you've got something like 2500 candidates, which works out to something like 10 per seat. What that means is that it is not so easy to identify which candidates fall neatly into which category for the purposes of gaming the political corruption. And when you have multi-cornered races, you can have surprises."
Inderfurth: "One hopeful sign is that the Afghan body responsible for the election, the Independent Election Commission, has gotten a new leader and is being seen as running a more credible process. So we'll have to see how these Afghan bodies work. The Afghans themselves are determined to run these elections."