Afghanistan will hold parliamentary elections Saturday for only the second time since the Taliban were ousted from power. At stake are all 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga. Who's running for office, how does the process work and what does it mean for the U.S. and other coalition forces there? Here's what you need to know:
WHAT IS THE WOLESI JIRGA?
The Wolesi Jirga, or “House of the People,” is the lower house of Afghanistan’s bicameral legislature. The upper house is the Meshrano Jirga, or “House of the Elders.”
The Wolesi Jirga is the only house in Afghanistan where all members are elected directly by Afghans. Like the U.S. House of Representatives, its seats are allocated by population. The provinces with the most people have the most representation.
WHAT ROLE DOES IT PLAY IN AFGHANISTAN’S GOVERNMENT?
All proposed legislation must start in the Wolesi Jirga. From there, it goes on to the Meshrano Jirga and then to the president.
The Wolesi Jirga, however, has the power to override both the Meshrano Jirga and the president with a two-thirds majority.
The Wolesi Jirga also provides other checks and balances within Afghanistan’s democracy. For example, the president’s Cabinet has to be approved by the Wolesi Jirga, as does the Supreme Court and the head of the country’s central bank.
WHO IS RUNNING FOR OFFICE?
More than 2,500 candidates are running for the 249 seats that make up the Wolesi Jirga. About 400 of the candidates are female, vying for the 68 seats that women are guaranteed in the country’s constitution.
“A huge majority of the candidates are running independently,” says Abbas Daiyar, who writes the blog Kabul Perspective and is a guest blogger for CNN's Afghanistan Crossroads. “Party election culture is not common in Afghanistan. … Unlike the U.S., where candidates receive private financing through fundraising for campaign expenditures, in Afghanistan most of the candidates are on their own.”
HOW WILL SATURDAY’S ELECTIONS WORK?
Registered voters will cast a ballot for just one of the candidates in their home province (or from a group of national candidates if they’re part of the nomadic Kuchi tribe).
Seats will be allocated depending on province. For example, Kabul province has been allocated 33 seats, nine of which are reserved for women. That means that the top nine female vote-getters will be awarded a seat. After that, the top 24 men will round out Kabul’s representation.
A majority is not necessary to win a seat in the Wolesi Jirga. In fact, with so many candidates running, it’s not uncommon for someone to win a seat with less than 1 percent of the popular vote.
Those elected will serve a five-year term.
WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS?
The threat of election-day violence looms. Already, at least three candidates and 13 of their supporters have been killed by insurgents. And the Taliban have said they will target polling stations. (More: Deaths highlight threat of violence-marred election)
There is also concern about corruption after last year’s presidential election. The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission invalidated nearly one-third of President Hamid Karzai's votes last year because of "clear and convincing evidence of fraud.”
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Strong voter turnout and a fair election process would speak volumes about the stability of the fledgling government. But the opposite could damage the government’s legitimacy and give momentum to the Taliban and other groups who want to see democracy fail in the country.
Violent attacks could also set back the government if it discourages Afghans from participating in future elections.
One thing is clear: The longer it takes to establish an effective government in Afghanistan, the more difficult it becomes for the U.S.-led coalition to withdrawal its troops from the country. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the drawdown of troops would be “gradual and conditions-based,” just like in Iraq.