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Abdullah hits Afghan campaign trail in search of quick win
AFP Abdullah hits Afghan campaign trail in search of quick win

Jalalabad (Afghanistan) (AFP) - Leading Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah has vowed to deliver a knock-out blow to opponents in the first round of the election to avoid a repeat of the disputes and delays that plagued the 2009 vote.

Abdullah, who came a close second in the last election, took to the campaign trail with a pledge to disprove widespread predictions that the April 5 poll would fail to produce a clear winner.

"It is different this time from five years ago," he told AFP on Tuesday during a roadside tea break on the way to deliver a campaign speech to several thousand supporters in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

"I have got confidence that I can do this because of the feeling we are getting from people around the country. My personal strategy for victory is to win in the first round."

Abdullah, a former foreign minister, pulled out of the second round run-off in 2009 after massive vote-rigging by supporters of President Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from standing for a third term in office.

"In the last election, President Karzai was the incumbent and much of his vote was because he used state apparatus in his favour. He didn't really win the election," Abdullah said.

"Since then I have spent five years in opposition, working for the people and connecting with everyone across the country."

Abdullah faces an uphill battle to win more than 50 percent of the first-round vote, which he needs for outright victory over 10 rivals including former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, Karzai loyalist Zalmai Rassoul and the president's brother Qayum.

But he is seen as likely to make it through to a second round run-off scheduled for May 28, with a final result due at the end of June.

Another violent and fraud-riddled election would badly undermine claims of progress during the 13-year foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and donor nations constantly stress the need for a "transparent, inclusive and credible" process.

Abdullah said his biggest fear was "ghost" polling stations -- when voting booths in dangerous areas are stuffed with fraudulent ballots far from the eyes of neutral monitors.

- Fraud threat -

The interior ministry said this week only about 390 of 6,645 polling stations would be kept closed due to poor security, despite Taliban insurgents being active across much of the south and east of the country.

"The main fraud is (always) where security is not good, and the security commission must say where elections are not possible so that no election material is sent there," Abdullah said.

The Taliban have vowed to target the campaign, and Abdullah travelled to Jalalabad in a high-speed convoy of 20 vehicles that careered along twisting mountain roads with gun-toting guards at the ready in armoured jeeps.

"The ministry of interior are doing their best (to provide security), I have no doubt, but the circumstances are complex," said Abdullah, a former aide to the late anti-Soviet fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud.

At the rally, Abdullah told the crowd that he would bring national unity and improved security, tackle corruption and strengthen the rule of law, as well as deliver on local projects such a new road to the nearby Pakistan border.

Law student Usna Kowsa, 18, who was one of only about 30 women in the crowd, said she was an Abdullah supporter but that she hoped more women would vote for candidates across the country.

"We are ready to vote now, we are 50 percent of the country and should use our vote. For me, I think Abdullah has done a lot for the good of this country," she said.

Ghani's well-organised campaign has also held large rallies of supporters in Kabul, and several of the candidates have participated in a series of televised debates as the election race warms up.

Security on polling day will be provided by the Afghan police and army, with the US-led international combat mission winding down its operations after fighting the Taliban since 2001.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will help with some transport and logistics during the election, officials say, and be on stand-by for emergencies.

All 55,000 ISAF troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, but 8-12,000 US soldiers may be deployed on a training and counter-terrorism mission from 2015 if a long-delayed deal is signed with the Afghan government.