Presidential race kicks off in Afghanistan
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With just two months to go before Afghanistan’s presidential elections, campaigning officially got underway this weekend with 11 candidates vying to replace President Hamid Karzai.
The vote, which is scheduled to take place on April 5, is seen as a crucial test for Afghanistan and whether it can ensure a stable political transition as NATO forces prepare to withdraw from the country after nearly 13 years of war.
The election already faces several hurdles – allegations of vote-rigging tainted the country’s last presidential vote in 2009, and security is also a major concern. The Taliban, which is against the poll, has vowed to disrupt the process.
Some Afghans say they are taking precautions amid fears of increased violence in the coming months.
“I have already advised my family to cut down unnecessary travel and never attend any big meetings,” said Fawad Saleh, a barber in the Shar-e Naw area of the capital Kabul.
While Afghanistan has no majority community, ethnic Pashtuns are considered the largest community and ethnicity will play a big role in deciding the next president.
Western diplomats expect the first round to be split between one of several prominent Pashtuns and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik who appeals to the same voter base and who ran as Karzai’s main challenger in 2009.
Two of Abdullah’s campaigners in western Herat province were shot dead in their car on Saturday, police officials said, in a grim reminder of the possible violence ahead.
“This coward action constitutes a violent intimidation of electoral candidates and their supporters, and cannot be tolerated,” the United Nations said in a statement.
The most ambitious efforts to conduct opinion polls, which were funded by the United States, have been cancelled over accusations Washington was seeking to manipulate the outcome.
But a first set of polling results in December put Western-leaning intellectual and ethnic Pashtun former finance minister Ashraf Ghani in the lead ahead of Abdullah.
Other frontrunning Pashtun candidates include Karzai’s brother, Qayum Karzai, and former Islamist warlord Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf.
Hope ahead of election
In spite of the threat of Taliban attacks, the campaigning season kicks off on Sunday with the rival camps throwing lavish parties in Kabul hotels.
Afghan businessmen have welcomed the campaign as a signal the political process is moving forward. Uncertainty about the future helped drive a tumble of more than 10 percent in economic growth in 2013, according to the World Bank.
“Now there is a hope for me and for the people of Afghanistan,” said Ismail Temorzada, who owns a carpet shop on Kabul’s once busy Chicken Street. His last sale was eight months ago, he said.
But optimism remains clouded by Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral deal to let a contingent of US troops stay after 2014. If Washington pulls all of its troops, much of the aid that pays for most government and security is likely to dry up.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)