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Afghan Presidential Campaign Ends

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Voters in Afghanistan go to the polls Thursday to decide whether to re-elect President Hamid Karzai to another five year term or choose one of about than 30 other candidates who say they have a plan to lead the impoverished country out of eight years of war. Mr. Karzai appears to be in the lead, but many observers are focused on whether Afghans will be able to carry-out a credible election.

Afghanistan's southern Zabul province is regularly hit by Taliban attacks, but residents in the main city say they are planning to participate in Thursday's poll - despite threats from militants.

Shopkeeper Shah Wali says that while he plans to vote, others in more remote areas may not.

He says we are proud to vote in the presidential and local council elections, but we regret that there is no security. He says people are doubtful that the election will be held in some districts.

It remains unclear how many registered voters will participate. Taliban forces are now believed to exert influence over as much as half of the country, but election officials have predicted that perhaps 90 percent of polling stations will be open.

In turbulent Zabul province, governor Ashraf Nassiri says he is optimistic about voter turnout.

He says he thinks the security situation is not as bad as people think. Security forces are, he says, in all districts in the area and they are in control.

Thousands of additional U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan to help secure the polls. But western officials worry that if Taliban threats severely dampen turnout, it could jeopardize the election's credibility.

With security risks high, even U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry is reluctant to urge people to go out to vote.

"We know that on election, day, that there won't be perfect security out there, so I have no advice to give to the Afghan common citizen, common man," said Ambassador Eikenberry. "That would be his or her own decision. But with reassurance to everyone that the very strongest efforts are being made every day to try to provide the best security environment possible."

Poor security across much of Afghanistan has meant few political rallies outside of Kabul, making it difficult for lesser-known candidates to campaign nationally.

With the country still hobbled by the ongoing war, the broken economy and a weak central government, opponents largely blame the situation on corruption and mismanagement under Mr. Karzai.

But some voters are wary about changing presidents in the middle of a war. A resident of Jalalabad says he is still supporting Mr. Karzai.

He says Karzai inherited a country in ruins and he has put that country on a path to rebuilding. He says we haven't found any other candidate who can complete what Karzai started.

As the incumbent, Mr. Karzai enjoys an enormous advantage over his rivals and many have accused him of abusing his office to ensure his re-election. Independent observers say that although they are expecting some fraud, they hope it remains relatively minor and does not threaten the credibility of the vote.  

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