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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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."

Campaigning in Paktika Province, he drew heavily upon in his personal biography: "As an Afghan and a mujahid [one who participated in jihad against the Soviets], I will bring an end to corruption," he said, adding he would realize the vision of his mentor Masood (a favorite even among Pashtuns). A group of schoolboys had earlier sung a lengthy lament to Masood's death: "Oh Masood, champion of the mountains, we remember you always."

Undoing the president's power

In terms of policy, Masood stands for reforming Afghanistan's political system by adopting a parliamentary as opposed to presidential system. This setup, Abdullah says, will ensure better checks and balances upon the executive. He also wants to devolve power to local government by having elected, rather than appointed, mayors and governors. Karzai has been able to entrench his power, he says, by selecting local officials loyal to him.

Prior to his Paktika trip last week, Abdullah was able to secure the backing of Atta Muhammad Noor, the governor of the northern province of Balkh, and Mohammad Hussain Anwari, head of the influential Islamic Movement and former governor of western Herat Province.

According to Mr. Mir, Abdullah is "the only serious rival" to Karzai, because he can attract those who have been sidelined or sacked from government under Karzai.

The intellectual

Ghani, on the other hand, has a strong background in academia with degrees from the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon, and from New York's Columbia University, where he earned a PhD in anthropology.

Ghani worked at the World Bank for 11 years as lead anthropologist, served as special adviser to Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, then the United Nations Secretary General's special envoy to Afghanistan, and was a close adviser to Karzai during the interim government of 2002 to 2004.

It was in his capacity as finance minister of Afghanistan that Ghani won most plaudits. He was credited with implementing extensive reforms and stymieing corruption, which led to his being named the Best Finance Minister of Asia in 2003 by the Emerging Markets newspaper.

His platform for the 2009 elections is based on a detailed economic plan for sustainable growth in Afghanistan's major provinces that he says will have a multiplier effect throughout the rest of the country.

"Ashraf Ghani is an internationally recognized intellectual. He has done more practical work, has over a decade's experience at the World Bank, and is a good planner," says Wadir Safi, a politics professor at Kabul University.

Mir adds: "Dr. Ghani is really the only candidate standing more for ideas than personality."

Looking like 'Washington's official pick'

But his strength as a technocrat may be overshadowed by his weakness when it comes to winning popular support, Mir continues. After Ghani completed his ambitious "Ten-Year Framework for Afghanistan," he headed to Washington, where he spent two weeks explaining his plans to US lawmakers. It was later translated into Dari and Pashto for the benefit of the Afghan people "which is the opposite of how it should have been. He should have explained his plan to the Afghan people first," Mir says.

Ghani's recent recruitment of James Carville, a campaign strategist to former US President Bill Clinton, may also backfire. According to independent parliamentarian and women's rights activist Shakooria Barekzai, "It makes him look like Washington's official pick. Even if that's not the case, it could hurt his chances."

Still, Ghani's campaign team is hopeful of selling its ideas to the public. "Our campaign strategy is to focus on making it a referendum of the last five years ... This election will not be about cheap deals. Our strategic partnerships will be with the people," says Ajmal Abidy, a spokesman.

Likelihood of runoff grows

According to a May poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, Karzai leads with 31 percent of the vote, with Abdullah at 7 percent and Ghani at 2 percent.

But some observers say the gap is narrowing. Karzai's rivals are increasingly likely to prevent him from winning more than 50 percent, which is necessary to avoid a runoff, say Mir and Professor Safi.

Gauging just how much the numbers are changing is an arduous task in Afghanistan, given the insurgency in the country's south, and a shortage of fixed phone lines and the absence in some places of area codes.

Other indicators that can be used to measure a campaign's momentum are number of posters, number of visits by tribal leaders to campaign headquarters, and the number of paid advertisements on television, according to Mir. Based on these metrics, it appears that the field may be closing, he says.

Karzai still holds election aces

Despite his rivals' recent gains, Karzai still holds many aces for the Aug. 20 presidential election.

"He's still a very skillful player. The manner in which he's been able to neutralize and co-opt his political opponents shows that," says Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, referring to the support that Mr. Karzai secured from Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, Hazara leader Hajji Mohammad Mohaqiq, and the influential governor of Nangarhar, Gul Agha Sherzai. Critics claim these opponents have been "bought" with dozens of promised ministries and governorships.

Karzai also successfully fended off legal challenges registered against his two vice-presidential running mates, Mohammed Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili, for their alleged links to war crimes. Late last month the independent Afghanistan Rights Monitor called on the United States and United Nations to intervene, in a report entitled "The Winning Warlords."

Karzai's control of the machinery of the state may also prove useful, says Wadir Safi, a politics professor at Kabul University.

Many residents in Kabul, like Muhammad Yousaf, a farmer, say they will vote for Karzai. "He has built many roads including one from Turkham to Jalalabad. It was a very long trip, but now it's easy."

Some of Kabul's educated youth appear inclined to support the challengers. On a surprise visit to Kabul University Monday morning, Abdullah attracted an audience of more than 800 students eager to catch a glimpse of the war hero. "Long live the resistance, long live Abdullah," they chanted.

Later, after the rally dispersed, first-year medical student Ali Abdullah complained that "Karzai has shown no progress, he hasn't done anything for the people." He says he will vote for "either [Abdullah] Abdullah or [Ashraf] Ghani," Karzai's main election rivals.

Hameeda Jan, a science lecturer, said she will vote for Mr. Ghani "because he is an educated man and qualified to run things."

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