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Asia-pacific

Drums roll, the presidential campaign closes

©

Text by Leela JACINTO , reporting from Kabul

Latest update : 2009-08-18

On the final day of campaigning for the landmark Aug. 20 poll, Afghan presidential candidates pulled out all the stops in a bid to woo an increasingly cynical electorate.

A sea of blue washed over Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium, site of the infamous public executions in the Taliban era, Monday as Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah addressed a massive rally on the final day of campaigning before the Aug. 20 poll.

Thousands of his supporters at the stadium waved placards and handed out flyers, the men dressed in blue T-shirts and caps, the women outside the stadium sporting flashy, sky-blue veils.

Across the city, on the Afghan capital’s dusty Darulaman Avenue, a handful of men gathered in a bare tent furnished with a plastic table, two plastic chairs and a TV set perched on a rickety stand crammed with files. The tent is the improbable campaign headquarters of Ramazan Bashardost, Afghanistan’s populist former planning minister who is running on a much-touted anti-corruption ticket.

On Sunday night, Afghan President Hamid Karzai finally joined his main rivals for a televised debate on the state-run national television. The incumbent, who is leading in the polls, had boycotted an earlier debate on a private TV station, drawing sharp critiques from his rivals, including Abdullah and former Afghan finance minister, Ashraf Ghani.

This is Afghanistan’s second round of elections since the 2001 fall of the Taliban and the first Afghan-led election to take place in more than 30 years. The last round of elections, the 2004 presidential election and the 2005 parliamentary polls, were jointly conducted by UN and Afghan officials.

But already, Afghans display both a flair for the razzmatazz surrounding presidential campaign trails and cynicism over its extravagant, flashier moments.

“Karzai and his associates, such as Abdullah Abdullah, campaign by spending dollars and if they don’t spend dollars, no one will come for their rallies,” said Afifa Maroof, Bashardost’s second vice-presidential candidate as she fanned herself inside the broiling tent under a scorching noonday sun. “Here, we have people from all groups Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek,” she lists Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups, “and they are spending their money out of their own pockets.”

A lawyer who has taken leave from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) to contest the election, Maroof points to a well-documented trend by some presidential candidates to distribute money and gifts on the campaign trail. It’s such a quintessentially Afghan way of doing electoral business that an advertisement on the private Tolo TV station advises audiences to take the money, but do their own thing inside the polling booth.

Wooing the political bosses

Another troubling trend on the campaign trail has been Karzai’s penchant for striking up deals with some of Afghanistan’s most unsavoury political figures. Karzai’s choice of the deeply reviled Marshal Qasim Fahim for his first vice-presidential pick raised eyebrows not the least because of Fahim’s brutal human rights record during the early 1990s’ civil war, but also because Karzai himself has been a victim of Fahim’s muscular form of justice during the internecine war years.

But in Afghanistan, securing the patronage of political bosses is considered essential for winning the vote, according to Afghan political experts. Minor details such as personal antipathy, past threats and differing ideologies are of scant consequence.

Few of the former mujahid leaders are as controversial as Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a whisky-drinking, former Communist Uzbek warlord. Accusations by several human rights organisations of abuse of Taliban prisoners shortly after the 2001 US invasion has been a sore spot in US administrative circles.

Dostum was in exile in Turkey over the past year. But late Sunday night, the Uzbek warlord returned home shortly after the government had announced that he was free to come back.


The United Nations and the United States have expressed concern at the prospect that Dostum could return to a position in government in exchange for delivering votes to Karzai.

Date created : 2009-08-17

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