KABUL: After being ruled by the gun for the past two decades and by kings for the previous two centuries, Afghans are less than three months away from voting in their country's first democratic election.

But is the country ready? Some political analysts - and a few candidates - contend that despite Afghanistan's long wait for democracy, the presidential election scheduled for October 9 has been hastily arranged by foreign governments more concerned with their own priorities than with those of Afghans.

In many parts of this mountainous, landlocked country the size of Texas, armed factional leaders exercise greater power than the central government, commanding private militias and collecting taxes and other revenue.

Remnants of the ousted Taliban movement and the Al Qaeda network continue to wage a running insurgency, battling 20,000 American and allied troops and vowing to disrupt the election.

In addition, no one is certain how many Afghans are eligible to vote, since there has been no census in decades. There are no clear guidelines for how candidates will finance their campaigns or who will guarantee their security if they travel around the country.

There is no plan in place for international monitoring of the vote or for safeguarding ballots as they are moved from isolated villages to provincial capitals.

"It's paradoxical that the international community, especially the United States, has invested a lot in the electoral process but has not put in the resources to guarantee it's free and fair," said Vikram Parekh, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. "The big question is: Is the country prepared for a democratic exercise?"

After US forces and Afghan militias drove the Taliban from power in late 2001, Afghan factional leaders and representatives of foreign powers met that December in Bonn, Germany, to chart a path that would lead Afghanistan to a form of representative government.

In addition to naming Hamid Karzai president and parcelling out positions in his cabinet among ethnic and regional factions, participants adopted a timetable that would bring elections by the middle of this year.

But many are questioning whether that goal was too optimistic. Even though the election is a few months behind schedule and will not include a vote for members of parliament, Parekh said, "the time frame Bonn set out was, I think, unrealistic, given what people had to establish here from the ground up."

Foreign Minister Abdullah, a former faction official from northern Afghanistan who has been the country's top diplomat since the Bonn conference, said he, too, thought the election was being held prematurely.

The current government - an interim administration chosen at a grand council, or loya jirga, in July 2002 - needs more time to rebuild the country's shattered institutions, he said.

"A preferable situation might have been if we had a five-year term for the government, so we could create institutions and (do) the basic work," Abdullah said. This past week, 23 candidates filed the paperwork required to run for president. Some said that the rush to elections favours the incumbent, Karzai, and questioned the fairness of the process.

"The situation for elections is not suitable," said a challenger from Karzai's Pashtun ethnic group, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai. "This is not the right time. They should postpone it until next year."

Like many Afghans, Ahmadzai accused the Bush administration of pushing the Afghan process ahead so the election will take place before the US elections in November. "We are sacrificing our elections for the November election in America - otherwise there is no reason to have our election in such a hurry," contended Ahmadzai, 60, a wealthy businessman.

"Mr Bush wants to show, 'I am a hero and had the election in Afghanistan.' They are forcing everything for their own election and not for the poor Afghans." Other observers contended, however, that there is no perfect time to hold an election in a country recovering from decades of war and that even a messy, flawed election will bring the Afghan government needed legitimacy.

"Is it going to be an election like we're used to in a Western democracy? Probably not. But it's a first step," said Grant Kippen, country director for the congressionally funded National Democratic Institute, which is helping with preparations. "I look at it more as a process rather than an event.

We need to send a signal to a whole bunch of groups - the ordinary citizens, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the government - that we're serious about Afghanistan and helping them."

One thing observers agree on is that incumbency gives Karzai a formidable advantage over his challengers. He is known around the entire country and dominates the state-run media.

In a recent public opinion poll conducted in Afghanistan by the Asia Foundation, a US-based non-governmental group, 62 per cent of respondents gave Karzai a favourable job-approval rating, and he received an 85 per cent personal popularity rating.

However, in southern Afghanistan, the Pashtun heartland where Karzai has his roots, his approval rating was only 35 per cent, while 46 per cent said he was doing a fair or poor job. -Dawn/The LAT/WP News Service (c) The Washington Post.

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