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Afghan poll a chance for change, or more of the same

By Sayed Salahuddin

KABUL (Reuters) - Imagine an election where candidates are unable to campaign in their own electorates, too scared even to hang their pictures outside campaign offices.

Welcome to Afghanistan.

"An election without security means nothing," says Fazlullah Mojadidi, a lawmaker from the capital, Kabul, who is seeking re-election in Afghanistan's September 18 parliamentary poll.

The country's roughly 17.5 million registered voters will be eligible to cast their ballots, the second major vote in 11 months after last year's fraud-marred presidential election.

How many Afghans actually do vote is one of the most important questions in the lead-up to an election in which at least three candidates have been killed already.

At least another 62 candidates have also been struck off the list for a range of irregularities, ranging from allegations they are former warlords to improper registration, but about 2,500 will still vie for 249 seats in the lower house Walesi Jirga.

The vote will be a litmus test for stability in Afghanistan, where military and civilian deaths have hit record levels as a Taliban-led insurgency continues to grow despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops.

It will also be a test for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has sought to assert his independence from his Western backers with a series of populist measures, not least of them a decree to disband security firms who have long been an irritant to Afghans.

While Karzai is not running, a veritable Who's Who of the Afghan political landscape is, ranging from tribal chieftains and fundamentalist Islamists to farmers and remnant communists.

Some of Karzai's opponents from last year's presidential poll are running and there is the risk of a hostile parliament that could block his plans and cabinet preferences.

Among them is outspoken Ramazan Bashardost, an anti-corruption politician who ran his campaign from a tent opposite parliament in Kabul last year and wants foreign forces out of Afghanistan.

FRAUD, GRAFT

Privately, Western observers fear Karzai will again have to make promises to appease opposing blocs, a worrying sign after the fraud and pork-barreling that marred last year's vote when more than a third of Karzai's votes were thrown out as fake.

The presence of powerful rivals could also frustrate Western countries pushing Karzai to step up anti-graft efforts and improve governance while U.S. and NATO forces push ahead with offensives before a troop drawdown begins next July.

Others say Karzai, Afghanistan's shrewdest politician, has already been hard at work playing potential opponents against each other, making sure he will have a compliant parliament.

But the most immediate concern is security, or the lack of it, with civilian and military deaths at record levels and violence at its worst since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

Before the parliamentary election in 2005, lawmaker Daoud Sultanzoi traveled daily without fear between Kabul and villages in Ghazni to the southwest to talk to voters and observe the voting process. Such a trip is impossible this time around.

"A good election can be judged by its campaigning process," U.S.-educated Sultanzoi told Reuters. Few candidates are willing to campaign openly in the south, he said, adding that it might be better to delay the vote until security can be guaranteed.

"We should not necessarily do things as put in the calendar ... people in the south and east may not be able to take part in it properly and that would not help the stability," he said.

THREAT LEVEL

Kabul's Mojadidi agreed. "The threat level has gone up drastically."

"Candidates cannot install their pictures even in front of district centers, let alone campaign," he said.

Election officials last week said security concerns meant 938 polling centers would not open. They had originally planned to open 6,835 centers, controlling close to 20,000 voting stations. Most that would not open were in the south and east, they said.

Another major concern is that poor security allows corruption to flourish.

While last year's vote was marred by wholesale ballot-stuffing, Western observers expect a more retail approach to this year's election with vested local interests spread across Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

As one said, observers can expect to see more "Chicago-style" intimidation of individual voters to back local candidates.

But that will still feed back into the question of security, or the lack of it, and corruption will play a part in President Barack Obama's promised strategy review in December.

The question of whether Washington has a credible partner with which to work will loom large both in that review and in crucial mid-term Congressional elections the month before, with Obama's Democrats split and public support for the war sagging.

(Editing by Paul Tait and Sanjeev Miglani)

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