Councillors finally get down to work

After being overshadowed by a chaotic presidential campaign, provincial politicians try to restore democratic credibility.

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KABUL // While the world focused its attention on Afghanistan's presidential election last summer, another vote was also taking place across the country. The race for seats on nationwide provincial councils remained largely out of the spotlight that day and in the tumultuous weeks that followed. Now, five months later, the winning candidates in Kabul have finally begun their work.

They are a mix of men and women, young and old, with the unenviable task of trying to restore some credibility to a democratic process that has been found badly wanting in recent times. How they perform at the grassroots level may not generate headlines, but it will provide another crucial litmus test for a western-backed political experiment that is close to its breaking point. "The election in the summer had a lot of strange problems. We saw problems inside the UN and inside the US and its allies," said Al Haj Nasaruddin Barali, the chairman of the capital's provincial council.

"We are just acting out democracy, but we do not know the meaning or the feeling of it." Each of Afghanistan's 34 provinces has an elected council. They have no legislative powers but must instead form a bridge between the people and the government, usually dealing with the kind of day-to-day issues familiar to local authorities internationally. In Kabul, the backgrounds of the 29 members, along with their hopes, fears and aspirations, echo much of the criticism and the praise that has been thrown at the country's political system since the Taliban regime fell.

Mr Barali's home in the city's Khair Khana neighbourhood is heavily guarded. In the sprawling guest room, there is a huge campaign poster of him covering one wall and a pistol lies on a table. Pictures of the former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah and Ahmad Shah Massoud, the late mujahideen leader, are also close at hand. As a commander in the anti-Soviet jihad and in the resistance against the Taliban, the 47-year-old's election is another small sign of the shift in the balance of power that started after the 2001 invasion, when former Northern Alliance militiamen turned to politics and found quick reward.

"Fortunately, I got the highest number of votes in Kabul," Mr Barali said. But the US-led occupation has also opened other doors, providing opportunities to Afghans such as Al Haj Qari Said Omar Hotak. He comes from Dawood Khil, an impoverished village on Kabul's eastern outskirts. "It was my first time running for election. I had seen that all the people going into politics were not honest, so then our village decided we should have a representative and with its support I was selected as a councillor," he explained.

"We don't have clinics, we don't have schools, we don't have enough facilities for our children and even in this weather we don't have heaters. But our government is weak and it doesn't have a big budget, so we will slowly work out the most important problems." Although councillors do highlight issues of national concern such as insecurity and unemployment, they know more mundane tasks will eat up most of their time.

In a city where the infrastructure has struggled to cope with a population boom since 2001, traffic congestion, rubbish-filled streets and a lack of housing have become major sources of anger for ordinary people. Tackling them will go some way to proving whether this form of government can genuinely work here. Sharifa Sherzad Allahdad, 30, vowed to put aside any differences with her new colleagues on the council in the interests of the greater good.

"When I saw the final list of councillors I noticed a lot who are criminals and commanders and a lot who have simple lives like me. But I will be friendly with all of them because my only aim is to serve the people," she said. For some members, getting elected to a position of even minor influence is a victory against the odds and a sign that change may yet be possible, despite the huge obstacles ahead.

Farida Tarana came to prominence as a contestant in the pop idol-style TV show Afghan Star. After deciding to run for council, she received threatening phone calls and had stones hurled at her car. She is now hoping to embark on a long-term political career in a society she believes is still "the same as the dark time of the Taliban". "Art and politics are joined to each other. When you are an artist you are a politician and when you are a politician you are an artist," she said.

"It's getting normal for me when somebody says 'I will kill you'."