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Afghanistan Elections Just a 'Baby Step' Toward Democracy

The United Nations and international observers are hailing Afghanistan's parliamentary and provincial council elections as an overall success, despite some violence on polling day. Many also warn that the elections represent just another step for Afghanistan along the long road to democracy, and there may be some speed bumps ahead as votes are counted and a parliament is formed.

In some ways, it appears that holding two national ballots in a country lacking the most basic infrastructure, amid the threat of attack by zealous insurgents, may have been the easy part.

Nearly 6,000 candidates ran in elections Sunday for Afghanistan's new 249 member national assembly and for seats in provincial councils, organized with the help of the United Nations. Although voter turnout was lower than expected, election day itself, officials say, was largely successful, with violence kept to a minimum. Last year's presidential election was also judged a great success.

But with vote counting now underway, officials say they hope the lesson that democracy requires good losers is one that has been taken to heart. If not, the voters might need some reminding.

"People will have to learn that part and parcel of the democratic process is indeed to accept gracefully the outcome, whether positive or negative," said Jean Arnault, a senior United Nations official in Afghanistan. "I hope that this lesson has already been learned, but if we have to go through a period of appeal by everyone to this kind of civic maturity, we will do it."

The parliamentary and provincial council elections are part of the on-going process of forming a democratic society, as Afghanistan emerges from more than two decades of civil conflict.

In addition to fears that some election losers may fall back on violence to ensure their local powerbases, many observers also worry that the Afghan people expect too much from what will be its first parliament in more than 30 years.

Standing in line at a polling station set up in a Kabul mosque, 18-year-old Latifa and her friends say they have a good idea what the parliament is meant to do. She says the parliament has to construct roads, look after education and to give women the freedom to live and work as they please.

Her group says they are hopeful the new parliament will succeed. But they will simply have to wait and see.

It may take months before the parliament resembles a body that can accomplish the things the Afghan people want.

No political parties were allowed on the ballots, meaning candidates ran as individuals. So even if there are no disputes about election results, analysts say it will take months, maybe longer, for alliances to be formed, and for the parliament to take on the huge job of creating the framework for a government and a legal system.

Senior Afghan officials dismiss as patronizing the suggestion by some that Afghanistan is inherently violent or not ready for democracy. The only way to ensure that a democratic government is formed, they say, is to push ahead with the process.

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali says the country and its new lawmakers will need time for trial and error. "In any way, this parliament is not going to be a perfect one. This is a first step, however, a step in the right direction," he said. "It will take time for this parliament to become a very good and functional, professional parliament. And I do not expect this parliament to be a perfect body - legislative body - from the outset."

Still, for democracy to take firm root in Afghanistan, analysts say, continuing help is needed from the international community.

"I think this is the first baby step. That's what everybody needs to realize. This is a baby step to democracy," said Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. "Elections are new idea here. A parliament is a new idea…. So it is going to need on-going support and attention. You're going to have members of parliament that have never worked in such a body before, you're going to have many losers and people who are excluded from this body, and trying to really build a robust political system and democratization will take many years to come."

Most Afghan leaders are aware of how delicate the situation is. Security remains a huge concern, with some parts of the country still under the sway of insurgents or drug lords, making them no-go territories for government officials. If democracy is to take root in these areas, it will first depend on the country's new politicians making it work in Kabul.