Afghans see hope in chance to choose new leader

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In this photo taken on Tuesday, April 1, 2014, female supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai listen to his speech during a campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan. Two Afghan women shrouded in black emerged from the campaign rally with bundles of sticks _ pieces of torn posters still attached. They needed firewood to heat their home more than pictures of the presidential hopeful.(AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

In this photo taken on Tuesday, April 1, 2014, female supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai listen to his speech during a campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan. Two Afghan women shrouded in black emerged from the campaign rally with bundles of sticks _ pieces of torn posters still attached. They needed firewood to heat their home more than pictures of the presidential hopeful.(AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

In this photo taken on Tuesday, April 1, 2014, balloons lift a poster of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai skyward during a campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan. Writing on the poster reads, “We want a reach Afghanistan, we want talented youth.” (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

In this photo taken on Monday, March 17, 2014, Afghan vice presidential candidate, Habiba Sarabi, center, arrives to a campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan.(AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

In this photo taken on Tuesday, April 1, 2014, Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai,Center with orang tie, and his two vice presidential candidates listen to the national anthem during a campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

In this photo taken on Thursday, March 6, 2014, Afghan presidential candidate Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, center, sits as he listens during a campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Two Afghan women shrouded in black emerged from a campaign rally carrying bundles of sticks with pieces of torn posters still attached. The women weren’t intending to knit back together what pictures remained of the presidential hopeful. They simply needed firewood to heat their home.

Afghanistan’s enduring poverty — and corruption — is making it easier for the Taliban to make inroads nearly 13 years after a U.S.-led invasion ousted them from power. The militants have vowed to disrupt Saturday’s nationwide elections with violence, and recent high-profile attacks in the heart of Kabul are clearly designed to show they are perfectly capable of doing just that.

But if voters turn out in large numbers and the Afghans are able to hold a successful election, that could undermine the Taliban’s appeal by showing democracy can indeed work.

With President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from a third term, Afghans will choose a new president in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power. As international combat forces prepare to withdraw by the end of this year, the country is so unstable that the very fact the crucial elections are being held is touted as one of the few successes in Karzai’s tenure.

Three men are considered top contenders in the race — a major shift from past elections dominated by Karzai, who has ruled the country since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. That has presented Afghans with their first presidential vote in which the outcome is uncertain.

There do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West between the front-runners — Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s top rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister. All have promised to sign a security agreement with the United States that will allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country after 2014 — which Karzai has refused to do. The candidates differ on some issues such as the country’s border dispute with Pakistan. But all preach against fraud and corruption and vow to improve security.

The candidates have stumped for votes with near-daily debates and rallies across the Texas-sized country, a far greater level of campaigning than in the past, when certain blocs of voters were largely taken for granted in a patronage system. They also have named running mates including warlords, leaders from rival ethnic groups and in some cases, women. None is expected to get a majority needed to secure a win outright, so a runoff between the top two vote getters is widely expected.

“The election excitement is being felt all over the place,” said Aimal Jan Ghafoori, who worked at a voter registration center in the southern city of Kandahar. “It’s really good to see this change. I hope this change helps in changing the fate of our country soon enough.”

He said barely three dozen people showed up to register each day in 2009, when massive vote-rigging marred Karzai’s re-election, while as many as 300 lined up daily to beat Tuesday’s deadline to register for this year’s elections for president and provincial councils.

But the attacks in Kabul over the past few weeks are threatening to scare voters away from the polls as Afghans worry security forces unable to guard areas previously considered safe won’t be able to protect them on election day.

Security forces were on high alert Thursday, a day after a suicide bomber struck the entrance of the heavily fortified Interior Ministry in Kabul, killing six policemen. Police searched cars and checked ID cards at checkpoints. Streets in the capital were unusually empty of traffic as many people stayed home for fear of more bloodshed.

“I have no interest in going to vote on election day,” said bank employee Jawad Furmoli. “People are very sad and it will be a dangerous day.”

“If the situation continues like this, I don’t think anyone will go to the polling stations,” said Wafaq Arya, who was near the Interior Ministry when it was attacked on Wednesday. “It will badly affect the elections.”

Nearly 200,000 Afghan security forces planned to fan out on Saturday to protect polling stations and voters.

The three front-runners all have expressed concern about fraud, particularly government

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