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U.N.-backed panel disqualifies Afghan poll candidates

KABUL (Reuters) - A U.N.-backed elections watchdog has blocked dozens of candidates from Afghanistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections over links to private militias, a senior election official said Wednesday.

Staffan De Mistura, the new Special Representative of the United Nations for Afghanistan, speaks during a news conference in Kabul April 17, 2010.REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

The September 18 poll will be a litmus test for stability in Afghanistan in the wake of last year’s presidential election marred by widespread vote-rigging and against a growing Taliban insurgency fighting the presence of some 150,000 foreign troops.

“The ECC decided to remove some 36 names of candidates from 17 provinces ... over alleged links to illegal armed groups,” one of the commissioners of Electoral Complaints Commission, Ahmad Zia Rafat told journalists in Kabul.

More candidates would likely be blocked, he said.

There are over 2,500 candidates standing for the lower house Wolesi Jirga’s 249 seats, including around 400 women candidates in the traditionally male-dominated country.

Security is the prime concern for a vote underpinning President Hamid Karzai’s ability to deliver on promised anti-corruption and development reforms.

Some of President Hamid Karzai’s defeated rivals from last year’s presidential vote are running and, if successful, could threaten an anti-Karzai parliament with the power to block the president’s plans and cabinet preferences.

The presence of powerful presidential rivals in the parliament could also frustrate western countries relying on Karzai to improve governance in tandem with the U.S. and NATO offensive against the Taliban ahead of a troop phase-down starting next July.

The list of candidates is likely to be a virtual “Who’s Who” of Afghanistan, with banners now festooning cities across the country for hopefuls that include Islamic fundamentalists opposed to the government, warlords, farmers and even remnant communists.

Around 12.5 million people will be registered to vote out of a population of 30 million. Western countries are trying to avoid a repeat of last year’s election fiasco, in which a U.N.-backed probe discarded nearly a third of votes cast for Karzai as fake.

Some leaders of former factions, accused of war crimes and currently lawmakers in parliament, are again running, with candidates competing for seats on individual platforms rather than by factional or party blocs.

Afghanistan’s election laws bar anyone tried for war crimes or with links with armed factions from running as a lawmaker or standing as a presidential candidate.

Insurgents, including the Taliban, al Qaeda and others opposing the government and foreign backers are likely to try and disrupt the vote in 6,835 polling stations across the country, of which only 6,000 can be secured. International aid agencies and some provincial officials this week called for the government to avoid using schools as polling stations and instead use tents out of concern that insurgents will target them in rocket or bomb attacks.

Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher