Afghanistan is bracing itself for a presidential election set to take place against a backdrop of surging violence and the fear of large-scale abstention. Yet for Afghans and foreign observers alike, the electoral test could hardly be more critical.
AFP - Mass rallies, Twitter messages and controversial backroom deals -- electoral candidates are pulling out every stop on the campaign trail in their bid to emerge victorious and govern Afghanistan.
On August 20, Afghans will vote in the second presidential election in their war-scarred nation's history and hopefuls are tapping every outlet, from tribal gatherings in remote mountains to online social networking communities.
Reaching voters is not easy in Afghanistan, where a deadly insurgency by Taliban militants grips many provinces, 80 percent of the population live outside the big cities, and two-thirds of people are illiterate.
Presidential hopefuls stare from colourful posters plastered on tree trunks, city walls and mud-brick homes in the country, as 41 candidates including incumbent President Hamid Karzai vie for voters' attention.
"In the last elections... other candidates were convinced that Karzai would win, so they didn't spend lots of money," said Waheed Mujda, an Afghan analyst.
"But in this election the leading candidates, like Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani, they think that they can defeat Karzai."
There are three frontrunners in the polls, and leading the pack is Karzai, who has governed Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban regime and who won the first democratic election in 2004.
Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah is emerging as a tough challenger, pounding the campaign trail with gusto, and swinging through villages and towns across the country at a relentless pace.
Wearing a trademark Western-style leather jacket, the opthamologist plays to the crowd, pumping out conservative rhetoric laced with memories of the anti-Soviet jihad and the heroics of resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Karzai has largely eschewed traditional village-by-village campaigning, recently holding just two big rallies, prompting accusations from his rivals that he cannot defend his years in power.
But in a nation of fierce local allegiances and ethnic divisions, analysts say canny deal-making with local strongmen may bring Karzai a victory.
He has secured the backing of warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostam, leader of the Uzbek minority, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, his Hazara counterpart.
Karzai is a member of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group but his selection of controversial warlord Mohammad Qasim Fahim as a vice presidential candidate also brings him the votes of many of the large Tajik community.
"He knows that finally the Afghan individual votes will not count, (voters) will listen to their leaders," said Haroun Mir, an analyst from the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies.
Such deals have been criticised by human rights groups as many warlords have blood on their hands from the decades of civil war, but in a largely illiterate nation, it is a shrewd strategy to bank millions of votes.
While Abdullah takes his show on the road and Karzai plots his next move on the Afghan political chessboard, some candidates are also tapping cyberspace.
Mimicking tactics made famous by US President Barack Obama, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani "tweets" on micro-blogging service Twitter, while candidates trumpet policies on Facebook and video-sharing website YouTube.
"The Internet has huge potential to affect elections in the developing world, as it does in richer countries," said Luke Cholerton-Bozier, who heads London-based digital media agency Red Narrative.
"Those few people that do have computers or Internet access are going to be the types of people who are influential amongst their peers, and so it's important to gain their support for the election," he said.
But many are sceptical about the reach of the Internet in a country where 70 percent of people cannot read and the majority live without electricity.
The top presidential candidates rely heavily on word-of-mouth campaigns, as well as television and radio, as the number of media outlets has mushroomed in the last eight years.
Karzai last month snubbed Afghanistan's first televised presidential debate, however, leaving Ghani and Abdullah to lay out their campaign manifestos next to an empty lectern.
Date created : 2009-08-07