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World News

Factbox: Some issues in Afghanistan's parliamentary election

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghans go to the polls on September 18 to elect a total of 249 members to the country’s lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga. Here are some of the main issues surrounding the election:

SECURITY

Violence in Afghanistan has spiraled this year with a record number of casualties among foreign and Afghan troops. Civilian deaths have also soared and the main concern on polling day will be security. Although not able to completely disrupt last year’s presidential election, attacks and violent threats by Taliban-led insurgents kept many voters away from polling booths, particularly in the south and east. In the last few weeks, militants have started carrying out attacks on election hopefuls, killing at least four candidates and some 15 campaign workers around the country. Civilians are also being caught in the crossfire. Many candidates have also complained that intimidation by insurgents has kept them from campaigning in their own electorates.

Afghans will lead security for the election but, despite some 150,000 foreign troops and around 300,000 Afghan police and soldiers, they acknowledge they cannot guarantee security in every part of the country. More than 900 polling centers will remain closed on September 18 because of security fears, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) said last month, and that number may well rise on the day. This could disenfranchise thousands of voters who will have nowhere to cast their vote, particularly ethnic Pashtuns in the most volatile areas in the south and east. Insecurity in many parts of the country will also prevent independent observers from reaching many of the polling centers and could give way to vote rigging and ballot stuffing like that in last August’s fraud-marred presidential election.

CORRUPTION

Along with poor security, corruption is one of the main gripes of ordinary Afghans, with many people saying they are more fed up with widespread graft than the Taliban insurgents. Many also complain that parliament, which is supposed to voice their grievances and keep the government in check, is made up mainly of ex-warlords and powerbrokers who only use their position to serve their own interests.

At least 62 candidates have already been disqualified for a range of irregularities, ranging from allegations they are former warlords to improper registration.

One of parliament’s most outspoken critics, Ramazan Bashardost, is a lawmaker himself and came third in last year’s presidential poll. He ran his campaign on an anti-corruption ticket and says parliament is no more than a rubber stamp for President Hamid Karzai’s government.

Corruption and poor governance are also one of the main concerns in Washington and are sure to be factored in when U.S. President Barack Obama conducts a strategy review of the increasingly unpopular war in December. Karzai says he has taken steps to tackle corruption within his own government but critics say they do not go far enough. Parliament has remained largely powerless against Karzai but has been increasingly flexing its muscle and recently blocked the president’s cabinet selection.

WOMEN

Afghanistan’s constitution states says a quarter of seats in parliament’s lower house -- or 68 out of the 249 total -- must be allocated to women. In the 2005 parliamentary election, women won 28 percent of the seats, just over the quarter needed. The IEC, which runs the election, began public campaigns to encourage women after there were few early registrations. The amount of female candidates now stands at 16 percent of the total of roughly 2,500 candidates, marginally higher than the 12 percent in 2005. Rights campaigners and observers will be keen to see whether women gain more seats than the guaranteed quota in this year’s poll.

Afghanistan, however, still remains one of the most conservative countries in the world where women are shunned from public roles, especially in rural areas, and campaigning as a woman comes with even more dangers. Last month, unknown gunmen killed five campaign workers for an outspoken female candidate, Fawzia Gilani, in western Herat. Women, many in Herat, have been attacked simply because they worked in public roles.

ETHNIC DIVISIONS

Afghanistan is still largely divided on ethnic lines and although candidates stand as individuals, some blocs in parliament are formed by regional powerbrokers based on ethnicity. Others belong to various political parties and factions, many formed by warlords who fought for and against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and in the subsequent civil war. While less important during elections, these blocs can be effective when voting on issues in parliament. Some observers say the current system encourages candidates to act along narrow ethnic and religious lines.

Abdullah Abdullah, runner-up in last year’s presidential election, recently accused the president of using his allies to lavishly fund campaigns of loyal candidates in order to tame parliament. Karzai, a Pashtun, represents Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. Although Abdullah is half Pashtun, he is known for championing the causes of Afghanistan’s second ethnic group, the Tajiks, and was a prominent member of the alliance which fought the Taliban. Other ethnic groups include the Uzbeks, loyal to ex-guerrilla leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Hazaras.

Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Paul Tait and Miral Fahmy

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