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Voting for a president can be confusing in any country, but it's particularly confusing in Afghanistan. Forty candidates are battling President Hamid Karzai for his job. And four weeks before the vote, most Afghans still have no idea who's running, and the candidates themselves haven't been of much help. Their outreach is limited to a smattering of posters and billboards featuring their unsmiling faces.

But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, at least some candidates have finally shifted into high gear.

(Soundbite of a cheering)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Thousands of men cheer and wave at a presidential candidate during his recent campaign trip to the city of Herat in Western Afghanistan. No one had predicted this kind of turnout. Even the man of the moment, Abdullah Abdullah, was surprised. Hundreds more chased his convoy on motorbikes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ophthalmologist turned politician.

(Soundbite of sirens)

NELSON: Later, Abdullah reflected on the turnout.

Dr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH (Presidential Candidate, Afghanistan): I have no doubt that people want change. It isn't that they didn't want change three months ago. They did want change at that time, as well. But they were not hopeful that this would come. Today, people are more hopeful.

NELSON: Voter interest is rising in many parts of Afghanistan these days, and not just at rallies for Abdullah, a foreign minister who is widely viewed as Karzai's main opponent. Even in some Taliban-rife areas, voters gather at clandestine rallies for candidates in people's homes or gardens. Many fear the militants who vowed to disrupt the elections.

John Dempsey heads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Mr. JOHN DEMPSEY (Director, U.S. Institute of Peace): Yeah, I mean, even a month ago, I would've said that President Karzai seemed to have it wrapped up, that there didn't seem to be any viable alternative candidates. But recent indications have showed that it may be actually a more competitive election than we had once thought.

NELSON: He says a competitive election shows that democracy is evolving in Afghanistan, that its citizens believe they can change things by going to the ballot box, even now, when a growing number of Afghans don't believe their government can protect them from the Taliban or bring economic stability.

(Soundbite of crowd)

NELSON: Take voters like Fuman Forough. On this night, the 18-year-old was at a small rally for Abdullah at a wedding hall in Herat.

Ms. FUMAN FOROUGH: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The university freshman says she hasn't decided who to vote for yet. She wants a candidate who offers a sophisticated plan for ending insecurity and widespread unemployment.

Yet it's rare to hear any of the presidential candidates talk about their plans. Karzai's opponents spend much of their time criticizing the incumbent and ticking off the country's problems. Karzai hasn't announced his agenda for his second term, either, nor has he attended a single campaign event.

Waheed Omar is Karzai's campaign spokesman.

Mr. WAHEED OMAR (Campaign Spokesman, President Karzai): Well, the president has always said that as the president of Afghanistan, his foremost responsibility is to run the country and to take care of his daily routine tasks. And he cannot afford to focus a lot on campaigning for the next re-election.

NELSON: His opponents complain that's because many government workers are doing Karzai's campaigning for him, something his spokespeople vehemently deny. Some voters say they'll stay away from the polls unless candidates start delivering more substance.

Mr. HAJI KABIR: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Like Haji Kabir. The teacher likens this campaign season to the Afghan national sport of buzkashi. It's a game with few rules where players on horseback vie for a headless goat carcass.

The international coalition in Afghanistan, especially the United States, has made it clear it is not backing any particular candidate. But the lack of substance is annoying some in the United Nations. The agency is helping the country prepare for the elections on August 20th.

Aleem Siddique is a U.N. spokesman in Kabul.

Mr. ALEEM SIDDIQUE (Spokesman, United Nations, Kabul): The Afghan people deserve a choice here. And the reality is that we're not seeing candidates lay out their manifestos for the future of this country at this critical juncture for this country.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Tonight, voters who tuned into Afghanistan's favorite TV network were treated to some of the substance that's been missing. The top opposition candidates: Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai faced off for their first televised debate.

President Karzai, who was also invited, refused to attend. His campaign says that Karzai felt too few candidates were involved, nor does he like the television network hosting the debate, which he accuses of bias.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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