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Afghanistan presidential election candidates face daunting challenges

Taliban militants made good this week on their promise to try and derail Afghanistan's upcoming presidential elections with bloodshed, killing five people in an attack on the Election Commission's Kabul office.

Almost a decade and a half after American troops forced the Taliban from power and helped usher in a new government, Afghanistan remains a dangerous country for democracy.

Daoud Sultanzoy is one of nine men vying to become Afghanistan's next leader in the April 5 election. Until that day, his routine looks a lot like those of American presidential candidates, filled with hand-shaking and speech-making.

But that may be where the similarities to the U.S. campaign trail end.

Almost 3,000 civilians were killed last year in Afghanistan as the war with the Taliban and its backers wore on.

So you'd think public figures like Sultanzoy would take special precautions, but he drives himself around the country in his own car, delivering his message to everyone who will listen.

Sultanzaoi says he can't afford elaborate security, and doesn't need it anyway.

"The people know me, I'm comfortable with the people," he told CBS News at his campaign headquarters in Kabul. "Threats don't scare me."

Not even the threat from the Taliban. Far from it, in fact; he considers the fundamentalist group to be just another Afghan voice -- one to be heard.

He said he's regularly in contact with Taliban leaders, who trust him and would like to see him elected as a leader who can "work with them in the peace process."

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Dawoud Sultanzoi on the campaign trail in Afghanistan.
CBS
Afghanistan's political system is something of a hybrid; a mix of modern democracy and ancient tribal custom. That, Sultanzoy says, means politicians are able to rely a lot less on the rigid planning and scripted events that their Western counterparts do.

"Plans cannot be carved in stone here," explained Sultanzoy, saying he tries to cater to "both modern and the traditional" elements in his nation's society. "There is room for both."

Though he pitches himself as a man of the people, many of those people seem unready to vote for him. Sultanzoy is not polling very well. He blames that, in large part, on another problem in Afghan politics.

"Corruption and fraud," he says, are set to skew his country's public will.

Sultanzoy accuses current president Hamid Karzai -- who can't run again due to term limits -- of meddling in the election process.

He says the election commission and other official bodies are stocked with Karzai appointees, and Zalmai Rassoul, the frontrunner in the polls, is Karzai's man in this race.

Rassoul isn't the only one facing Sultanzoy's scorn, however. He accuses other leading candidates of funding their campaigns with dirty money, gained by way of all manner of corruption and graft including plundering public funds, illegitimate use of state bodies, and flat out extortion.

"They have guns, they have armies of gun runners, they get money from drug cartels," he argued. And he's hurling the accusations not at lower tier, long shot candidates, but many of the very power players who have led this country for more than a decade.

Sultanzoy said it all makes for a very uneven playing field. And that, he believes, is a bigger threat to Afghanistan's democratic process than the men trying to blow it up.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.