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Afghan Voters Prepare to Vote Next Thursday

Next Thursday voters in Afghanistan will decide whether to re-elect President Hamid Karzai to another five year term or choose one of 36 other candidates who say they have a plan to lead the impoverished country out of eight years of war. Mr. Karzai appears to be comfortably in the lead, but observers are mainly focused on whether Afghans will be able to carry-out a credible election.

In Kabul, even rush hour traffic is an opportunity for voter education. But since less than one-third of Afghanistan's population lives in major cities, officials have focused on registering voters in rural areas, finding people to staff remote polling stations and educating them about the voting process.

Since the last presidential election five years ago, some logistical problems - such as ink that could be washed off voters' fingers - appear to have been fixed. Other problems, mainly Taliban attacks, have worsened.

In the main city in southern Zabul province, shopkeeper Shah Wali says while he plans to vote, others in more remote areas may not.

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

Mr. Karzai and his political allies insist the election will go forward, despite Taliban threats to disrupt the polls. Zabul's governor Ashraf Nassiri says he is optimistic about voter turnout.

"I think the security situation is not as bad as people think," he explained. "Our security forces are in all districts here and we are in control."

Thousands of additional U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan to help secure the polls. But Western officials worry that Taliban threats and violence may severely dampen turnout, jeopardizing the election's credibility.

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," he said. "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. As the incumbent, Mr. Karzai enjoys an enormous advantage over his rivals.

Many have accused him of abusing his office to ensure his re-election.

His top two challengers, both of whom served in cabinet-level positions in Mr. Karzai's government, accuse him of ruining the country through corruption and mismanagement.

But some voters are wary about changing leaders in the middle of a war. A resident of Jalalabad says overall, he has been impressed with how President Karzai has handled the job.

JALALABAD RESIDENT: "Karzai inherited a country in ruins and he has put that country on a path to rebuilding. We haven't found any other candidate who can complete what Karzai started."

While the presidential race dominates headlines, voters are also deciding among more than 3,000 candidates for advisory provincial councils. These council candidates, such as Zabihullah Zamary in Jalalabad, largely conduct face to face campaigning in small groups.

This Zamary-backer says these grass-roots campaigns are much more traditional than the highly-orchestrated national campaigning of the presidential candidates.

ZAMARY SUPPORTER: "People nominate candidates who are liked by them, who are respected, and who can secure their area."

A key test for Afghanistan's next president is whether he will be able to rely on influential local leaders to help carry out national policies. President Karzai struggled throughout his first term to extend the reach of the central government beyond Kabul. Whoever wins the election will face the same problem.