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Afghanistan struggles to keep warlords off the ballot

The election commission says it will decide shortly whether to disqualify 21 more candidates from the Sept. 18 election.

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With only two weeks to go before Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, officials here are making a last minute bid to ensure that warlords do not get a firm foothold in the new government.

The Elections Complaints Commission is reconsidering whether 21 candidates should be disqualified for being warlords or having links to illegal militias. With ballots already printed for the Sept. 18 vote, any further disqualifications would have to be posted at polling stations to warn voters away from wasting their vote.

Since coming to power, the central government, headed by US-backed President Hamid Karzai, has gingerly tried to disarm and remove warlords from their bases of power - and met with some success. Analysts fear that the parliamentary election could be a setback to those efforts if warlords or their surrogates are allowed to wield their influence within the corridors of Afghanistan's fledgling legislature.

"Many who abused human rights in the past continue to abuse human rights and traffick in drugs from positions of power today," says Joanna Nathan, senior analyst for International Crisis Group in Afghanistan. "Many are now seeking the mantle of a democratic mandate. This should in no way exempt them from prosecution or other means of justice as determined by the Afghan people."

The latest investigations are the second attempt to purge warlords from a field of 5,800 candidates for the National Assembly and Provincial Councils. The process has been criticized by human rights groups and other observers for allowing past human rights abusers and current outlaws to run for government and perpetuate Afghanistan's culture of impunity.

A final decision on whether the disqualify the 21 candidates will be made in the coming days, according to ECC spokesman Josh Wright. Given the touchy definition of "warlord," explanations of ineligibility won't be given.

"We're not a criminal court," said Mr. Wright. "We're making decisions for the administration of elections."

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