KABUL Afghans vote in parliamentary elections on Saturday for 249 seats in the country's wolesi jirga, or lower house of parliament.
Here are some questions and answers about an election that is costing around $150 million to stage, virtually all of it paid for by foreign donors.
WHAT IS PARLIAMENT'S ROLE?
Parliament approves or rejects legislation proposed by the government, which is formed by the president but subject to the assembly's approval. Afghanistan also has an upper house made up of presidential and provincial appointees, but real power lies with the lower house. Parliament has been increasingly flexing its muscle and blocked President Hamid Karzai's choices for certain cabinet positions.
SO WHO RUNS?
Candidates must run without party affiliations, in a system designed to prevent ethnic factionalism. A total of 2,447 candidates, including 386 women, are standing. The number of seats given to each district depends on population size, with Kabul the largest with 3 million people and 33 seats -- nine reserved for women. A total of 664 candidates are registered in the capital alone.
The number of candidates is slightly down from the 2,775 who stood in 2005, although the Independent Election Commission (IEC) says it made an extra effort to persuade women and members of nomadic tribes to run. Ministers and civil servants are not allowed to run while in office, and candidates require the support of 1,000 registered voters to run.
SO DOES PARLIAMENT HAVE BLOCS?
Yes. Even though candidates run as individuals, they in actuality represent dozens of political parties as well as factions and blocs formed by warlords who fought for and against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and in the subsequent civil war. Regional strongmen also form ethnic and tribal groups. These blocs are less important when standing for election than when voting on issues in parliament -- particularly when it comes to Karzai forming cabinets.
WHAT IS THE SECURITY SITUATION
The IEC says at least 1,019 of 6,835 polling centers -- around 15 percent -- will not open because security cannot be guaranteed. The Taliban tried, with limited success, to disrupt the 2005 parliamentary vote and the 2009 presidential vote. They have also threatened to disrupt this vote, hitting foreign forces first and then Afghan targets.
At least four candidates have been killed, and dozens of campaign workers have been killed or wounded.
Security forces have also shot dead four people in violent protests in reaction to a plan -- later abandoned -- by a small U.S. church to burn copies of the Koran. The rowdy protests have stoked tension ahead of the vote.
WHERE ARE THE CHECKS AND BALANCES?
Fraud marred Karzai's re-election last year and caused a major rift with Washington. Afghanistan's U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) threw out a third of votes cast for Karzai as fraudulent.
Following the ruckus, Karzai changed the make-up of the commission and it now comprises three Afghans, an Iraqi and a South African.
The head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, however says no ECC decision will be final unless it is ratified by at least one of the two foreign commissioners.
Complaints will have to be registered within three days of the poll, and the ECC has the authority to impose sanctions and penalties if it concludes an offence was committed.
Preliminary results are not expected before October 8, with a final approved result not before October 30. Both dates could be pushed back if, as expected, a lot of complaints are logged with the ECC.
WHAT DOES THIS ELECTION MEAN FOR AFGHANISTAN?
Civilian and military deaths in Afghanistan are at record levels and violence at its worst since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. If the government is unable to secure the vote adequately, it will cast more doubts about Karzai's plans to put Afghan forces in complete control of security by 2014. The presence of powerful rivals could create a parliament hostile to Karzai and frustrate Western countries pushing him to step up anti-graft efforts and improve governance while U.S. and NATO forces push ahead with offensives before a troop drawdown begins next July.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond and Tim Gaynor; Editing by Bryson Hull)