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KUALA LUMPUR - The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) this week is set to elect its new chief, who will have an uphill battle to restore the Asian football governing body' s tarnished image and reputation left by its disgraced former boss, Mohamed Bin Hammam.
Almost all candidates have promised stern actions against corruption, more transparency and better governance for the AFC in the first poll in the post-Hammam era.
Bahrain Football Association chief Shaikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, backed by Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad AL-Sabah, is widely seen as a frontrunner for the presidential race in the run-up to the AFC Extraordinary Congress to be held in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
He is competing with other two candidates from the Middle East -- United Arab Emirate Football chief Yousuf Al Serkal and Hafez Ibrahim Al Medlej from Saudi Arabia, as well as Thai FIFA Executive Committee member Worawi Makudi, for the AFC presidency.
Shaikh Salman is also running against Hassan Al Thawadi, a less known figure who led Qatar in winning the 2022 FIFA World Cup bid, for the FIFA executive committee seat.
Shaikh Salman is making good use of his narrow defeat in 2009 by Hammam in the election of FIFA Exco seat to position himself as a rival against the Qatari, who was banned by FIFA for life for bribery during the FIFA presidential race in 2011.
Shaikh Salman was reported as saying that he was confident to secure a two-third majority by winning 31 votes out of AFC' s 46 member associations.
He has promised a series of efforts to clean up AFC' s reputation.
However, Shaikh Salman' s own reputation is far from intact.
He is under increasing criticism recently for his role as football association chief and member of the royal family in human right abuses against players during the Bahrain' s crackdown on anti-government protest in 2011. He is also related to votes-buying allegations during the FIFA seat election in 2009.
Shaikh Salman has denied any wrongdoings.
UAE' s Al Serkal is another presidential hopeful, who publicly complains OCA' s "interference" in the election.
Makudi is largely discredited for being a close ally to Hammam, while Hafez Ibrahim was reported earlier that he would pull out of the race in last minute before the AFC Congress.
A tight race may further rift the association. Caretaker chief Zhang Jilong has consistently called for unity.
The new AFC president will complete the Bin Hammam' s remaining two-year tenure before facing another election in 2015, casting doubt on whether he would have enough time to complete any major reforms.
James M. Dorsey, a football blogger and senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said most presidential candidates do not have a real reform agenda.
"Al-Serkal is the only candidate that has laid out a program that addresses the fundamental problems wracking the AFC, but he lacks a track record of pushing for reform," he told Xinhua.
Dorsey said AFC has not even started to recover from Hammam' s scandals.
In a letter disclosed by media before the AFC Congress, AFC general secretary Alex Soosay warned AFC' s member associations against any kind of bribery, conflicts of interests during the elections.
In the past two years, Acting AFC president Zhong Jilong, who took the rein after Hammam was banned, has tried hard to turn the regional football governing body around and successfully thwarted an attempted come-back by Hammam with the help of FIFA.
During the last AFC Executive Committee meeting his chaired as AFC chief in March, Zhang urged exco members to "restore AFC back to its health and glory" while serve as "shining examples of honesty, integrity, and transparency."
Zhang was once considered the leading figure for the presidential job, but announced that he would step aside before the nomination deadline.
Dorsey said the Chinese tried to confront AFC' s major problems, but didn' t have the leverage to take on vested interests as acting president. "The presidential election is either not going to make a difference or could worsen things for the AFC. A defeat of Sheikh Salman by Qatar' s Hassan al-Thawadi in the battle for the FIFA Exco seat would be a step, but only a step forward," Dorsey said.