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Afghan Voters Gear Up for Historic Election - 2004-10-07

Afghanistan goes to the polls Saturday for the first presidential election in the country's history.

Election time in Afghanistan brings the blare of music and the pounding of drums, the roar of motorcycles festooned with crepe paper, and loyal supporters lining up to kiss the hand of their favorite candidate.

Colorful political posters, some defaced by rival camps, decorate walls along the dusty main streets of the capital Kabul.

And now, with the official campaign over, the country waits to see which man - or woman - will become Afghanistan's first-ever popularly elected president.

For a country facing a landmark election, politics do not quite dominate conversation on the streets the way they have in other countries inaugurating a new democracy.

But if you ask, Afghans are happy to offer their opinion of the candidates.

As no comprehensive opinion polls have been published on this election, the outcome is impossible to predict.

But in Kabul at least, the most popular contenders appear to be the incumbent, transitional President Hamid Karzai, and former Education Minister Younus Qanooni.

Javed Abdul-Rahim, a jewelry shop clerk who describes his age as "maybe 18," is typical of Mr. Karzai's supporters, drawn to the president for his role in the post-war reconstruction over the past 2.5 years.

"Most [of my] friends, they all like Karzai, because Karzai has been working to rebuild our country," he said.

Supporters of Mr. Qanooni, meanwhile, point to his role with the Northern Alliance, or United Front, the group of militias that joined with the United States in 2001 to oust the strictly Islamist Taleban regime.

While two of the candidates on the ballot have since dropped out, the remaining hopefuls each boast of their own core constituencies from among this geographically and ethnically-diverse nation.

The large field of candidates has left some voters a bit confused.

Afsar Omari, a 19-year-old carpenter originally from the northern town of Kunduz, says all of the would-be presidents are making almost identical statements, vowing to take Afghanistan from its war-ravaged present to a bright and prosperous future.

The problem, he says, is deciding which one to believe.

"Every one says, 'We will rebuild Afghanistan,' promises to the Afghan people," said Afsar Omari. "[But] we don't know if he'll do that or won't."

But regardless of who becomes president of Afghanistan, many prospective voters feel confident that person will represent the true choice of the people.

Abdul Ahad, a 21-year-old ex-refugee recently returned from India, dismisses reports that voters in some parts of the country are being coerced to vote for this candidate or that.

He says the fact that the ballot is secret guarantees that Afghans will be able to vote their conscience when they enter the polling booth.

"If there's pressure, we can say it's not honest," said Abdul Ahad. "But there's not pressure for anybody. Everybody goes by himself [or herself] to vote."

Preliminary results for the election are due out within a few days of the polling, and official numbers are slated to be released within two weeks.

If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the total, a run-off election will be scheduled between the top two vote-getters.

Yet many Afghans say the fact that elections are being held at all - in a country that has been ruled by a monarchy, a communist-installed dictatorship and an Islamic theocracy - is more important than who becomes the winner.