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Afghan election: Can Karzai's rivals close the gap?

Top contenders Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani are campaigning outside their traditional bases and attacking the incumbent.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 2009

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah (r) is greeted by supporters in Fayzabad during a campaign trip in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province Saturday.

Tim Wimborne/REUTERS

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Kabul and Paktika Province, Afghanistan

Rivals to Afghan President Hamid Karzai are stepping up their campaigns ahead of an Aug. 20 presidential election that is just beginning to look like a real contest.

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Although Mr. Karzai leads the field of 41 candidates by 24 percentage points, according to a May poll, serious contenders like former government ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani appear to be gaining popularity and may even force the incumbent into a runoff, say Afghan political analysts.

Meanwhile, both candidates are campaigning in areas – and with ethnic groups – outside their typical bases. They are directing fierce criticism at Karzai, trying to tap into widespread resentment at continuing insecurity and weak and corrupt governance.

In a speech in southeastern Paktika Province over the weekend, Mr. Abdullah struck a defiant tone in front of a crowd of several hundred Pashtun tribesmen – a constituency not traditionally favorable to the former Northern Alliance leader.

"I want Afghanistan to stand on its own feet so that in a few years we won't need foreign troops. The president's bodyguards are all American. He doesn't trust his own people. If you don't have support, why try to stand for election? Afghans deserve better," he declared to a roar of approval.

Mr. Ghani – a former World Bank analyst who was in 2006 tipped for the job of United Nations Secretary General – is traveling north to non-Pashtun regions. (For security reasons his campaign team refuses to divulge his exact location to media until after his visit.)

"The president can hide in the palace, but Dr. Ghani is not afraid of his own people," says one Ghani spokesman.

The warrior

Though the two candidates may sound alike on the campaign trial, their paths to the presidential race cannot have been more different.

Born in Kabul to a Pashtun father from Kandahar and a Tajik mother, Abdullah graduated as a medical doctor from Kabul University in 1983 and worked briefly at an eye clinic in Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He later became a key figure in the anti-Soviet resistance, becoming first the personal physician and then a key adviser to Tajik resistance leader Ahmed Shah Masood – a revered figure in modern Afghanistan to whom Abdullah is widely seen as a successor.

During the Northern Alliance's brief time in power in 1995 he served as a government spokesperson, later becoming the "foreign-minister-in-exile" during the period of Taliban rule. Fluent in French, English, and Arabic on top of native languages Tajik, Dari, and Pashto, he spent much of his time abroad lobbying foreign governments for financial and materiel assistance while in exile.

Following the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, he was confirmed as foreign minister, a post he held until 2006 when he was removed by Karzai as part of a purge of Northern Alliance officials.

According to Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, Abdullah's biography is certain to help him. "His background as a close aide to Masood plays in his favor. Without that background he wouldn't be able to attract the crowds he is attracting right now."

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