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Afghans see hope in chance to choose new leader

An Afghan man tried Friday to control his donkey loaded with ballot boxes ahead of Saturday’s presidential election. They were delivering the supplies to remote villages.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters

An Afghan man tried Friday to control his donkey loaded with ballot boxes ahead of Saturday’s presidential election. They were delivering the supplies to remote villages.

KABUL — 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 tape 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 US-led invasion ousted them from power.

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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.

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 that 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 being called one of the few successes in Karzai’s tenure.

Nearly 200,000 Afghan security forces planned to fan out on Saturday to protect polling stations and voters. On Friday evening, mobile phone messaging services stopped working in the capital, Kabul, in what appeared to be a security measure by authorities to prevent militants from using messages for attacks.

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 reelection, 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.

The three front-runners all have expressed concern about fraud in the balloting, particularly government interference.

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