Afghan presidential campaign opens

A two-month campaign season began Tuesday for presidential elections to decide who leads Afghanistan for the next five years, as the Taliban rebellion grows more violent and the U.S. sends in tens of thousands of troops to combat it, AFP reported.

Campaigning got off to a slow start. The only signs of activity were the posters of President Hamid Karzai - who is currently visiting Russia - and some of his 40 opponents in the Aug. 20 vote that appeared overnight on the streets of Kabul.

Karzai, who has served as Afghan leader since soon after the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001 and comfortably won the first presidential vote in 2004, is expected to win again. But many Afghans are unhappy with his leadership.

Militant violence is rising and public anger reverberates against his government and U.S. troops for accidental civilian killings in military operations. Economic issues will be crucial too. Poverty remains widespread and corruption is rife.

Karzai's main challengers are former Cabinet colleagues: former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

"The last election I voted for Karzai, but later I saw that he was not worth it," said Mohammad Shokran, a 28-year-old medical student, standing at a street corner next to posters of the top three candidates.

"He (Karzai) could not do anything for development or progress for the country. Of all the people who are running for the presidency, Abdullah will be the best."

Key to Karzai's success could be his ability to again win the support of his fellow Pashtun tribespeople in the south and east of the country - the largest ethnic group in this diverse nation of about 30 million people.

In some campaign posters, the president appeared alongside his two vice presidential nominees, including a former warlord accused of rights abuses - Mohammad Qasim Fahim.

Fahim was a commander in the Northern Alliance - of which rival candidate Abdullah was also a key leader - that helped oust the Taliban in 2001. Fahim is expected to help deliver ethnic Tajik votes from Afghanistan's north, but he has already drawn heavy criticism from rights groups and a top U.N. official.

The Afghan government, the U.N. and the U.S. and NATO militaries are working to provide enough security so Afghans from the snowcapped mountains in the north to the unending deserts in the south may cast votes. Thousands of new troops are pouring in to help protect the balloting.

President Barack Obama has made the war in Afghanistan one of his top priorities and has ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to join the fight. The first contingent began fanning out last month across Afghanistan's dangerous south.

The Pashtun-based Taliban have urged Afghans not to vote and have launched minor and scattered attacks on voting registration centers. But Taliban leaders have not said whether they will attempt a large-scale disruption of the election.

The vote will be Afghanistan's second democratic presidential election. The first was seen as a watershed in the country's rebirth after the austere rule of the Taliban that harbored Osama bin Laden.

During the 2004 election, 18 candidates had 40 days to campaign. Karzai won an easy first-round victory with 55 percent of the vote.

This year candidates are allowed 60 days to campaign, until Aug. 18, two days before the election. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held.

Opponents of Karzai already accuse him of using the power of the state - such as government helicopters and state media - to gain an unfair advantage in the election. But the country's electoral chief said Tuesday that Karzai will not be allowed to use his position to benefit his campaign.

Karzai can not appear on state media without equal time given to other candidates, and he cannot fire top government officials who may not cooperate with his campaign, said Daoud Ali Najafi, Afghanistan's chief electoral officer.

Two women are among the 41 candidates, though they are not expected to fare well. Still, Shukria Ahmadi, a teacher, said she would vote for one of them.

"The last time I voted for Karzai, but this time I'll vote for one of the women," she said while looking at a poster of female legislator Shahla Ata. "I don't know which one yet."

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