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Mass rallies on last Afghan campaign day

Top candidates in the Afghan presidential race on Monday addressed rallies attended by thousands of cheering supporters on the last day of campaigning for key elections overshadowed by Taliban threats.

Afghanistan’s 17-million voters go to the polls on Thursday to elect a president for the second time in history and 420 councillors in 34 provinces in a massive logistical operation handicapped by rampant insecurity.

President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled since the late 2001 United States-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime, is frontrunner to win but a strong campaign from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah has raised the chance of a run-off.

More than 10 000 people poured into a Kabul stadium — a once notorious Taliban execution ground — wearing blue baseball hats, waving blue flags, carrying pictures of Abdullah and chanting his name over and over again.

In a vote stunt rare for Afghanistan, a helicopter circled overhead, dropping hundreds of papers marked with Abdullah’s photo, election sign and number as marked on the ballot paper to help even the illiterate majority vote.

Afghan police later arrested the pilots of two helicopters and campaign staff for allegedly violating Kabul airspace by dropping the flyers.

”Hey compatriots, wake up, it is time for a big change,” said the papers written in the three most common Afghan languages, Dari, Pashtu and Uzbeki.

”Do you want to vote for the president who releases killers from jail, who releases opium traders from jail?” Abdullah shouted in the microphone, lashing out at Karzai while flanked by a battery of photographers.

Karzai, whose office said one of its final campaign events would unveil four candidates abdicating in his favour, came under fire for alliances with warlords during a first television debate attended by an Afghan head of state.

In a 90-minute head-to-head broadcast on Sunday, he was criticised by outspoken anti-corruption campaigners, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, and eccentric but popular Kabul lawmaker Ramazan Bashardost, over the alleged deals.

The debate put Karzai in the rare position of facing some of his harshest critics and he came under fire for pulling out of an earlier debate in July.

The US embassy in Kabul expressed serious concern to the Afghan government on Monday following the homecoming of key Karzai ally, infamous warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, ”particularly during these historic elections”.

Ghani, who is running on a campaign of clean governance, job creation and economic development, addressed a final rally of 5 000 in the eastern province of Nangarhar, pledging to replace the ”corrupt government with a legitimate one”.

”Karzai will give you food now, but I will provide food for a 100 years because I will provide jobs for one million people and build one million houses,” the former World Bank academic pledged.

Afghanistan is expected to mobilise all available security resources in a bid to protect voting centres on Thursday and overcome fears that poor voter turnout because of insecurity could jeopardise the legitimacy of the polls.

Officials acknowledged that insecurity has handicapped preparations, unable to confirm the number of polling stations with just three days to go.

The Taliban have threatened to attack polling stations, escalating their bid to derail the polls and destabilise the Western-backed government in the impoverished and largely rural country.

”If they don’t have soldiers and police we will not open the centres,” electoral official Zekria Barakzai told reporters.

About 200 000 Afghan security forces and the 100 000 US and Nato troops will provide security in a three-cordon formation putting foreign forces on the periphery, followed by Afghan soldiers and then police at polling stations.

Despite the influx of thousands of extra US troops and multiple offensives designed to crush rebel resistance, election officials say insecurity could close up to 12% of the nearly 7, 00 planned polling stations.

There has been progress since the collapse of the 1996 to 2001 Taliban regime but many people are frustrated: despite billions of dollars of international aid, most Afghans lack electricity, roads are bad, jobs are scarce, corruption rife. — Sapa-AFP

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Jennie Matthew
Matthews is an AFP New York correspondent. Previously in Pakistan/Afghanistan, Sudan and Middle East

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