Amid violence, Afghanistan prepares for second presidential election - News, Weather, Sports, Toledo, OH

Amid violence, Afghanistan prepares for second presidential election

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The Afghan government on Wednesday called for a media blackout on reporting violence as security threats loomed a day ahead of its pivotal presidential.

The media was asked to refrain from covering any attacks on election day in an effort to "ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people." Already, escalating violence this week in the capital, Kabul, has made some Afghans think twice about whether to venture out to vote.

"If we are not at peace, why should we vote? Who should we vote for?" said Ferishta, 21, who last weekend lay in a blood-soaked shirt and was connected to an intravenous drip after a suicide bombing.

Amid the violence, the candidates did last-minute campaigning, hoping that the elections would showcase their country's fledgling democracy.

"We're at a moment of truth," said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, an independent advisory and analysis organization.

An incumbent president and 40 challengers, including two women, are vying for the votes of an estimated 17 million registered Afghans against a backdrop of war, graft, poverty and illiteracy. More than 3,000 donkeys, 3,000 cars and three helicopters will traverse harsh terrain to carry voting materials to remote polling stations. And 30 observer groups, domestic and international, will be on hand to help guard against fraud.

At the heart of every vote will be the two biggest impediments to progress in one of the poorest nations in the world: stifling corruption and an increasingly bloody Taliban insurgency.

International donors are helping pay for the $223 million electoral undertaking, and hundreds of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers have moved into strife-torn southern Afghanistan to protect voters against possible Taliban attacks. The insurgency has pledge to disrupt voting with violence and has threatened those who dare vote.

The top U.S. envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, expressed optimism that Thursday's vote would be Afghanistan's moment to shine. It's tough to organize elections during a war, he said, but violence during elections is commonplace in many parts of the world.

"Afghanistan has never had a contested election," Holbrooke said. "So this is a remarkable experiment in democracy and something that Afghanistan needs to give legitimacy to the new government."

That legitimacy has become a key issue in the campaign. Frontrunner President Hamid Karzai's chief challengers -- former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah -- have lashed out at the incumbent for failing to rein in corruption. In its annual global corruption perception index in 2008, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan 176 out of 180 countries and said graft was "a major factor impeding the country's stability and future growth."

Ghani told CNN that the most significant challenge Afghanistan's next president faces is earning back the trust of the people.

"This government has lost it," he said in a recent interview. "There is no sense of trust, not only in the current leadership, but in the political class as such, and in the capacity of the state or the international community to improve the lot of our people."

Ghani characterized Karzai as a "very poor manager" who failed to deal with pressing issues and create any sense of momentum for the nation moving forward. As a guest on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS earlier this month, Ghani said Afghanistan's corruption had metastasized into a cancer that was "eating through the society."

Abdullah said people's dissatisfaction with the Karzai government had helped strengthen the insurgency.

"There is no doubt there is a hardcore element in it," he told CNN. "But there are thousands of people under the same brand, Taliban, [who] have joined the insurgency because of other reasons."

The insurgents are filling a vacuum left by Afghanistan's Western-backed government, which foreign diplomats and military commanders acknowledge now suffers from nepotism, corruption and predatory practices.

During a political debate Sunday, Karzai conceded that corruption was a problem but offered no specific cures.

He also has been blamed for what has become the bloodiest summer since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Most polls, however, show Karzai with a commanding lead.

Latifa, a Kabul homemaker, said she was pleased with Karzai's stewardship and would vote for him.

"Like raising a child for seven years, in seven years he has helped our Kabul, our Afghanistan, stand on its own two feet," she said. "We didn't know an election before. We hadn't seen a parliament."

But can a nation as troubled as Afghanistan carry out fair and free elections? Some human rights activists and observers of Afghanistan have voiced doubts.

Kai Eide, the U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, said Thursday's election will be the most difficult he has encountered. Besides the violence and corruption, Eide said, weak infrastructure and a high illiteracy rate will add to election woes.

The problems were reflected in a new Gallup Poll that found that fewer than 1 in 4 voting-age Afghans are confident the election will be fair and transparent.

Voting in Afghanistan, Eide said, is not yet the kind of democratic expression understood in the West.

"If you look at the well-established democracies in the West, for instance, that's not possible under these circumstances," Eide said. "But what my objective is that we have credible, inclusive elections where the result will be accepted by the people. That is our level of ambition, and I think we will achieve that."

Eide said a significant number of polling stations in Helmand, Kandahar, Ghazni and Wardak provinces will not be able to open due to security reasons. Ballots should be counted at the polling center instead of being transported elsewhere, he said, citing a higher possibility of fraud. Such accusations marred the last election in 2004.

Of the 4.6 million new registered voters, 39 percent are women. So thousands of women had to be employed to search burqa-clad female voters.

Human Rights Watch, however, said this week that the recruitment drive for women began too late and, as a result, not enough women will be available for security checks.

"Women voters have been badly let down by their government and its international backers," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Women's votes will be closely watched in Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime stripped women of equal rights and education, essentially hurtling them back to the stone age.

Despite the violence, despite the threats from the Taliban, enthusiasm filled the air this week.

A campaign rally resembled more of a rock concert than a political event in Afghanistan, as a Kabul stadium transformed into a sea of blue, Abdullah's campaign color. Supporters hoisted banners and sported T-shirts emblazoned with his face.

Not yet old enough to vote, Ferishta, 15, a beauty school student, attended a rally for Ghani with many of her classmates.

"We want a president who is peaceful and caring," she said. "We don't want any more bombs. In these bombs, so many Afghans have died -- one person's son, one person's child."

But no one can predict whether abounding energy will translate into high turnout. Not in a war-ravaged nation. Not when bombs were still exploding just hours before balloting begins.

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