Often characterised as valiant crusaders defying Afghanistan's chauvinistic culture, many female candidates standing in tomorrow's parliamentary elections may in fact be just the opposite: proxies doing a warlord's bidding. Women's rights campaigners in Kabul claim that the majority of a record number of female candidates in the vote – a contest widely expected to be marred by bloodshed and fraud – have little interest in advancing their own political agendas or promoting women's and human rights.
Instead, activists say, many candidates are pawns in a game of patronage, with the victors expected first and foremost to protect the interests of whichever strongman, powerbroker or mafioso has bankrolled their campaign.
It is just one of the problems surrounding a vote that will almost certainly be beset by violence and a low turn-out. The Taliban have left letters outside hundreds of mosques, warning locals not to go to the polls, and threatened violence against anyone taking part.
There are also questions over the competence of the Independent Election Commission, the body responsible for running the vote, and the anti-fraud watchdog, whose powers have been watered down since it embarrassed President Hamid Karzai by invalidating almost a million votes cast for him in last year's presidential election.
The alleged collaboration between some female candidates and the country's power-brokers is one indication of the way the parliamentary vote is likely to be less free and fair than the government will try to pretend.
Candidates "supported by a bank, a warlord, a tribal leader; these are the people able to spend money," Wajma Frogh, an activist, told The Independent. "I know villagers who have sold their votes [to a female candidate] for $20. People will vote for her. Another very honest, women's rights activist is not able to pay $20 a vote. She's not going to make it into parliament."
If Frogh, and others like her, are right, it's an uncomfortable truth for those trying to portray women's participation in Afghanistan's fledgling democracy as a beacon in an otherwise dark and stormy country – and a cynical reminder that politics in Afghanistan is rarely what it seems.
"Although we have a very centralised government there is still power in the parliament," Nargis Nehan, the director of Equality for Peace and Democracy, said. The legislature's chief powers include a veto on cabinet appointments and overseeing the budget.
"Now everyone's realised that they don't want just one seat, they want as many as possible," Nehan said. "The easiest and least challenging way of doing this is to fill the women's seats because the competition between men is quite tough."
With 25 per cent of the 249 available seats reserved for women and just 386 candidates contesting them, the women's field is far less packed than the men's. Trying to exploit the women's vote provides good value for money for patrons.
The proliferation of proxy candidates represents a wider problem in Afghanistan – the fact that despite its democratic veneer, the country's politics still beat to an age-old rhythm of patronage.
"This election will reflect what happens in Afghanistan overall," Frogh said. "This government runs a patronage system. Here, democracy does not mean that people's voices are important. Whoever is in power is in power because of coercion, because of someone else's power... It reflects the whole system, how Afghanistan has been run all these years. This parliament is only a check-the-box formality so the international community can say: 'Yeah, Afghanistan has a democracy.'"
One female MP, Shinkai Karokhail, who is standing again for one of nine seats available to women in Kabul province, agrees. "Most of the mafia wants support in the parliament and they will expect support [from their candidates]... the problem is if you're not representing your country, if you're representing the self-interest of a certain group, it means... you're damaging the country. Already this country is sinking because of corruption. [These candidates] will be another cause of this corruption."
Karokhail said her campaign had been funded by friends and supporters, to the tune of $30,000. Despite phone calls warning her not to run on pain of kidnap and death, she said she is running to promote the right of Afghans to choose their representatives in the face of a system that has concentrated power in the few.
Not everyone believes that competition between female candidates has been compromised. Samira Hamidi, an activist with the Afghan Women's Network, told The Independent: "I know some of the [female candidates] and I know there is no one behind them, no warlords, mafia, drug dealers or so on. I think there are two reasons for the participation of so many women: the past elections have encouraged women to run as candidates; and there have been steps forward in the lives of women and... there are more opportunities for them now."
In either case, Saturday's ballot is expected to be messy and imperfect. "This country has a background noise of violence; it's a dull roar," Nick Maroukis, of US-based Democracy International, who are deploying hundreds of observers across the country, said.