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Afghans to Choose from Wide Field for President - 2004-10-06

When Afghans go to the polls for their country's first presidential election Saturday, they will choose between no fewer than 18 candidates.

The Afghan presidential ballot is a photo gallery of 18 faces and names, each with their own take on the challenges facing the country.

Perhaps the best known internationally is transitional President Hamid Karzai, who has run Afghanistan since the fall of the strictly religious Taleban regime in 2001.

Mr. Karzai's campaign promises have concentrated on rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of war. One of his main goals is reviving the economy and easing his country's grinding poverty.

"In short, I want to have an Afghanistan that is on its own feet, that has its own money," he said.

Many of his opponents have long track records as military commanders who resisted the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and helped oust the fundamentalist Taleban regime that took over the country in the mid-1990s. Others spent years working in government ministries.

Several of the more prominent candidates are linked to Afghanistan's various ethnic groups.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, for example, is a member of the northern-based Uzbek minority and much of his support is expected to come from that group.

Rival Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, meanwhile, is Hazara, a Shiite Muslim ethnic group concentrated in the center of the country.

While some Hazaras may vote for Mr. Mohaqiq solely on his ethnicity, the candidate also has tried to widen his support through a tough security platform.

He said the transitional government has failed to protect Afghans from the criminal acts of militias scattered around the country and has not done enough to stem the production of illegal drugs.

Also running for office is former Education Minister Yonous Qanooni, who is among the candidates most watched by the local media.

Mr. Qanooni is a leader from the Northern Alliance, or United Front, which joined with the United States to oust the Taleban three-years ago.

A member of the powerful Tajik ethic group, Mr. Qanooni has spent much of his time denouncing alleged corruption in the transitional government. He says that if elected, he will fight corruption from the top down, rather than simply targeting minor officials.

Other prominent candidates include Hamayon Shah Asifi, a brother-in-law of the widely popular former king, Zahir Shah.

Also associated with the former king is Abdul Satar Serat, a law professor who served as justice minister during the monarch's rule, which ended in the 1970s.

Massooda Jalal, a doctor, is the sole woman in the race and she has received less visible public support than many of her rivals.

With no comprehensive opinion polls published, the winner in this crowded field is difficult to predict. A number of foreign news reports have painted President Karzai as the favorite.

Mr. Karzai's high profile has upset many of his opponents, who say he is using his office to monopolize the media, a complaint echoed by Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission.

Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai is a candidate from the largest tribe in Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Like many of his rivals for the presidency, he says his chances of winning would be much higher if Mr. Karzai did not enjoy the advantages of being the incumbent.

"If there is no hanky-panky, like what Mr. Karzai is doing, if there is a free and fair election, then I am very much optimistic I will win," said Mr. Ahmedzai.

Like many of the other candidates he accuses the United States, Afghanistan's largest foreign aid donor, of endorsing Mr. Karzai, a claim both the president and the U.S. government deny.

Mr. Ahmedzai says that Taleban remnants waging an armed struggle against the election process and other security problems could seriously hurt voter turnout.

But he says Mr. Karzai refused to delay the election to give U.S. President George Bush a foreign policy achievement before the U.S. election in November.

President Karzai says the Afghan people recognize the achievements of his transitional administration. He says he is confident not only of winning the election, but of carrying more than 50 percent of the vote, thereby avoiding a run-off election between the top two vote-getters.