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Afghan Presidential Hopefuls Debate Corruption, Peace, Women's Rights

  • RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal

Afghan presidential hopefuls in a televised debate ahead of the April vote have pledged to tackle widespread corruption and hold peace talks with the Taliban, also laying out their respective views on women's rights.

During the first of two presidential debates this weekend sponsored jointly by state broadcaster RTA and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Kabul, former Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said corruption "has hit Afghanistan's reputation hard, both nationally and internationally."

Wardak added that his "first step" as president would be to tackle graft.

The anticorruption theme was echoed by another candidate, former Governor Gul Agha Sherzai. "We need to emphasize industrialization and better utilize our economic resources," Sherzai said.

Former lawmaker Daud Sultanzoi said he would improve the rule of law in order to attract foreign and domestic investment.

Wardak said the country needs to prioritize agriculture and the development of mineral resources.

Islamist leader Qutbuddin Hilal said, "We need to rebuild our industries. We need to build new dams."

LIVE BLOG OF THE DEBATE by RFE/RL's Abubakar Siddique

Sultanzoi vowed to negotiate with the Taliban in order to improve the country's security, adding that the "distance between the people and the government is a major factor of instability."

Both Sherzai and Islamist candidate Qutbuddin Hilal said a neutral shura, or council, would be needed to conduct the peace process.

"We need a good mechanism for peace talks with Taliban in Afghanistan and to continue diplomatic efforts with Pakistan in this regard," Sherzai said. "I will talk to the Afghan Taliban inside Afghanistan, for example, in Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and other parts of the country. And I will talk to Pakistan in a friendly manner, keeping Afghanistan's interests in mind. I will bring peace, God willing."

Four of the 11 candidates in Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential election were participating in the first of the two weekend televised debates: Islamist leader Hilal; ex-Defense Minister Wardak; former Nangarhar Province Governor Sherzai; and Sultanzoi, a former member of parliament from Ghazni Province.

Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah had been invited to attend, as well, but eventually declined.

PHOTO GALLERY: Afghan electoral authorities announced a final list of 11 candidates to appear on the ballot for the country's April 5 presidential election:

The four candidates present also laid out their respective views on women's rights in their socially and religiously conservative country.

Hilal said Islam gave women many rights and "we need to ensure their rights are within the boundaries of Islamic Shari'a law."

Sherzai said, "We need to ensure that women rights are protected," adding that he would work with religious scholars.

Wardak said the goal is for all men and women of Afghanistan to enjoy all the rights given to them by "our religion, constitution, and the global conventions we have signed."

And Sultanzoi said, "The rule of law will ensure that human rights are respected."

"Afghanistan was divided at the Bonn [Conference] among some groups like the spoils of war, and the jihad of Afghanistan and its people was taken hostage," Sultanzoi said. "We will create a vision in this country that will be innovative and an effective government with a clear vision. We are at the service of the people of Afghanistan, and we want to save them from the current situation and from those who have already served [in government]."

The debates are being conducted in both of Afghanistan's official languages, Dari and Pashtu.

INFOGRAPHIC: Where the leading candidates stand on select topics

Those invited to appear in the February 16 broadcast are former Foreign Minister Zalmail Rasul; former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani; former presidential adviser Hedayat Amin Arsala; President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Qayum Karzai; Prince Mohammad Nader Naim, the grandson of the late King Zaher Shah; and the Salafist politician and former mujahedin commander Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.

The first of a possible two rounds of the election is slated for April 5.

With contributions by RFE/RL