As campaigning for Afghanistan's first legislative election in more than three decades drew to a close this week, a 60-year-old woman in a chic blazer and a gauzy veil stepped up to the microphone at an outdoor rally.
In the distance, Soraya Parlika could see the white walls of the stadium where officials of the Taliban movement, the repressive and fundamentalist Islamic militia that controlled Afghanistan until late 2001, used to publicly flog women charged with adultery. In front of her, men in turbans waited respectfully for Parlika to speak -- as outwardly unfazed by the fact that the candidate was a woman as they were by the knowledge that she was a communist activist before the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But along with such signs of recent change, there was clear evidence that Afghanistan remains traditional, conservative and male-dominated. In the crowd of more than 200 people, only 16 were women -- all but two of them covered from head to toe in blue burqas.
"I've decided to focus on getting votes from men," Parlika, a former university administrator, said later with a resigned shrug. "I'd like to get women, too. But it's just very, very difficult to find places to reach women in our conservative society."
Parlika's dilemma was just one of a host of contradictions that have defined the elections, which will be held Sunday and which feature nearly 2,800 candidates competing for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament. About 3,000 will compete for positions on 34 provincial councils that will help choose the upper house.
The chance to represent hitherto powerless groups has attracted thousands of political newcomers to the race, including recent university graduates, members of the nomadic Kuchi tribe and nearly 600 women -- who are guaranteed a little more than one-fourth of the seats. Yet most of the top contenders are power brokers from the past: aging communist generals who worked for the Soviets, rapacious Islamic militia commanders who overthrew the communists before falling at each other's throats, and ex-Taliban ministers who took power from the warring factions.
The elections are a key step in an international agreement intended to ensure Afghanistan's emergence as a stable democracy and to allow the United States and other nations to draw down their forces here in the near future. Yet the balloting will take place amid the most significant resurgence in violence by Taliban guerrillas since their ouster four years ago.
Finally, while Afghans have demonstrated enormous enthusiasm for the election -- about 12.4 million people have registered to vote, 2 million more than for last year's presidential election -- international observers fear that a complicated balloting procedure, combined with intimidation by insurgents and regional strongmen, may prevent voters from expressing their will.
"This election could have produced a parliament that really reflected the wants and needs of the Afghan people to be free from the rule of the gun . . . and for clinics, roads, schools and jobs," said Sam Zarifi of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "Instead what we may get is a parliament stocked with figures who represent the bloody past and who have very little legitimacy or competence to address the basic needs of the country."
In the final days preceding the vote, however, the most palpable feature of the race was the sheer diversity of candidates.
Bashar Dost, a former planning minister who resigned after accusing foreign assistance organizations of squandering Afghanistan's aid money on fancy cars and equipment, rumbled around Kabul in a large truck passing out handbills to throngs of children. Meanwhile, cell phones across the city buzzed with text messages promoting the virtues of more tech-friendly candidates.
Posters featuring the grinning visage of Sabrina Saghbe, a female basketball player who at 25 is the youngest candidate in the race, were plastered on shop doors under billboards featuring dour photographs of Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a Muslim militia commander with a white, nearly waist-length beard and an even longer record of wartime atrocities.
Bariolai, a 30-year-old day laborer who uses only one name, said he felt his stomach clench with rage every time he passed one of Sayyaf's signs. A resident of the Kabul neighborhood of Afshar, he said he watched Sayyaf's men burst into his house and shoot his father dead during a notorious massacre of ethnic Hazaras there in February 1993.
"If it's a real democratic government, people like that should not win," Bariolai said with a grim shake of his head. "But I hear [Sayyaf] is spending lots of money and has lots of supporters, so he'll probably get in."
In the quest to win votes, or perhaps simply to avoid bad publicity, several notorious contenders have sought to reinvent themselves. In an interview Saturday at his spacious mud-brick mansion in the central province of Logar, Maulvi Qalamuddin, former head of the Taliban religious police that whipped women for failing to wear burqas and carted men off to jail for failing to grow their beards long, insisted, "I've always been against extremism."
A tall man with a bushy black beard and large hands who was once one of the most feared men in Kabul, Qalamuddin spoke in soft, measured tones as he said that irregular elements of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice carried out such abuses, and that the police under his command never did more than "encourage" Muslims to comply with the Taliban's vision of Islamic law.
Qalamuddin added that he had tried to use his position to moderate some regulations, such as a ban on television. And although he defended most others -- including a prohibition against kite flying ostensibly adopted to prevent men from spying on female neighbors from their rooftops -- Qalamuddin said, "We have other priorities, like reconstruction, right now."
The most serious threat to the elections was the nearly daily violence mounted by suspected Taliban guerrillas in the south and east. In an apparent bid to disrupt the elections, gunmen have killed seven prominent clerics, six candidates and four election workers. On Saturday, a grenade attack killed five police officers south of Kabul, and Afghan and U.S. troops arrested 20 men suspected of trying to blow up the country's largest dam in the southern province of Helmand.
To improve security during the elections, NATO-led forces operating in the north and west have sent an additional 2,000 troops to Afghanistan, while the U.S. military has augmented its forces in Wardak and Logar provinces surrounding Kabul as well as Ghazni city with a battalion of about 700 men.
The battalion's commander, Lt. Col. David Anders, said he expected to find weapons caches in Wardak, but relatively limited Taliban activity. Instead, he said, "we've found dormant cells that have been training and waiting to attack in this time frame."
He said his men of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, had killed or detained members of several such units using information from informants captured during several firefights since their arrival at the end of July. But he believed there were still more at large.
By midweek, Anders had deployed every available soldier to drive back and forth across the routes that the ballots would be traveling en route to regional counting centers. With so many men in the field, the base seemed oddly quiet.
Less than a mile away, the provincial headquarters of the joint Afghan-international body running the elections felt just the opposite, as workers rushed to load ballot boxes onto trucks headed to the polls in time for the vote. One of the men, Syed Mohammed Chack, 41, said he had been getting little more than four hours sleep a night.
But he broke into a happy grin when asked if he was enjoying the work. "It's hard, but it makes me so happy," he said. "I feel that I'm doing a service for my people."