U.N.-SUPERVISED ELECTIONS for the lower house of Afghanistan's national assembly, the Wolesi Jirga, are less than two months away. The September 18 poll, delayed repeatedly, is one of the last remaining tasks agreed on by Afghans and the international community at a conference near Bonn, Germany, months after the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

On one hand, election officials cite a high level of participation by candidates and voters, and advanced preparations, despite a delay in delivery of significant funds pledged by international donors. On the other hand, the September elections will be much more complicated than the successful presidential election of October 2004, both logistically and politically.

The voting system is obscure and designed to inhibit the development of political parties. Under this little-used system known as the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV), votes are not carried over from the leading candidate to affiliated candidates, as happens in proportional representation systems. In a country like Afghanistan, where literacy and political development are extremely low, this makes it difficult for parties to tell their supporters how to vote.

That, combined with the decision not to put party symbols on the ballot, will make the ballot confusing and unwieldy. There is no voter registry, fake voter cards are easy to come by, and a sensible decision to count the votes at the provincial level will create difficulties for monitoring and transporting the ballots to centers that may be days away from the polling stations.

If Afghans are lucky, fraud, logistical nightmares, and budget shortfalls will be the least of their problems. An upsurge in activity by the Taliban, who are concentrated in the south and the east, makes these areas particularly insecure and often inaccessible to NGOs. Local government officials and pro-government clerics have been assassinated, as have candidates and election workers. NGO workers have also been targeted and operate under strict security, even in Kabul. NATO plans to add 3,000 troops to enhance security for the elections. There is particular concern that suicide bombings, relatively rare in Afghanistan, will become more common. That, along with the death in June of 16 U.S. servicemen in a helicopter trying to rescue a team on the ground, three of whom were killed, has caused this summer to be called the most violent since the end of the war. According to Afghan and administration officials, things will get worse as the election approaches.

They may get worse still after the election. Especially if, as some political figures are already suggesting, losers reject the results. New democratic institutions challenge the interests of powerful figures with notorious pasts, including ties to armed groups and drug trafficking. Alternatively, the results might bring to power people who have no use for anti-corruption and anti-narcotics enforcement, not to mention the creation of war crimes tribunals or a truth commission to address 30 years' worth of atrocities.

Afghanistan's past has so far taken a back seat to the present, despite the high priority Afghans place on justice for crimes committed during the war and upheaval. Thick reports by human rights groups highlight familiar names, including some in senior positions in government. Afghanistan's constitution bars convicted war criminals, or any criminals, from sitting in the national assembly or serving as government ministers. The absence of a functioning judicial system has made that provision virtually meaningless.

Instead, the Electoral Complaints Commission has become a focal point for Afghans' grievances. At a news briefing (reported by Reuters), the Canadian chairman explained that the commission could not act to exclude candidates unless they had been convicted of crimes. "We are not a criminal court, nor are we a transitional body," Grant Kippen said by way of explaining how a review of over 1,000 complaints led to no exclusions on the basis of criminal conduct. Just 17 candidates were barred for links to armed groups, a number that many think reflects a tacit decision not to rock the boat in advance of the election.

The government is reportedly considering proposals for a tribunal or truth commission. The lack of action, however, and the broader strategy of bringing some of Afghanistan's most notorious figures into government, has created skepticism. A human rights activist criticized a recent reshuffle of Kabul-appointed provincial governors with unsavory reputations as a "chess game." A politician allied with a coalition of small democratic parties says secular democrats are being marginalized, citing the influence of Islamic fundamentalists at the national level, in governorships, and at the Supreme Court. He worries that the window of opportunity for advancing democracy is closing. September's elections, he says, are "our best chance. We don't want to miss this."

Those are high expectations for the elections, not to mention for the Wolesi Jirga itself. No matter how well Election Day goes, the members of the new assembly will face a daunting constitutional mandate: to approve or reject within 30 days hundreds of executive decrees by which the country has been administered up to now. None of the new members will have served before in an elected body. In the absence of well-formed political parties and established legislative procedures, and with an uncharted relationship with the executive, gridlock or chaos is a distinct possibility. And that's at the national level. Local administration will continue to be plagued by armed groups operating beyond the reach of the national government.

The stakes, for Afghans and for the international community--especially the United States--are high. Without an understanding that the elections carry as much peril as promise, the great and worthwhile project of democratic nation-building in Afghanistan does not have a chance.

Ellen Bork is deputy director of the Project for the New American Century. She visited Kabul from June 25 to July 2 as a member of a preelection assessment mission by the National Democratic Institute.

Next Page