Helicopters, crowds, and cash as Afghan campaign heads into home stretch
Enthusaistic Afghans are greeting presidential candidates on the campaign trial, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're winning over supporters.
Thousands of supporters mobbed Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as he walked out of his helicopter into the boulder- and dust-choked capital of Afghanistan's poorest province.Skip to next paragraph
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Hours later, as the leading challenger to Hamid Karzai for the presidency returned to the choppers, his campaign manager faced a smaller – but clearly frustrated – mob: The local politicians who paid to bus the crowds to the event wanted more money.
"Lots of people came [but] you have to pay for their transportation," explained Dr. Abdullah's manager, Saleh Mohammad Registani, later. He says these campaign events – now a daily feature for presidential aspirants as they head toward an Aug. 20 vote – can cost $70,000 to $100,000 a pop. Many cynical Afghans say a lot of that money ends up in local powerbrokers' pockets.
Afghanistan's presidential campaigns have many of the trappings of a Western-style election, from aerial barnstorming of far-flung cities by candidates and their media entourage, to speeches by local pols warming up crowds for the main act.
But what might appear to be grass-roots enthusiasm for the major campaigns turns out to be mainly Afghan "astroturf" – citizen participation that's contrived and sometimes paid for by local power brokers. That makes predicting the election even harder than normal.
"Campaign rallies tell you nothing about people's convictions or how they are going to vote. A lot go because they are told they are going to something else, or because they are summoned," says Martine van Bijlert, A Kabul-based researcher and former adviser to the European Union's representative in Afghanistan.
A newly-released poll that was conducted in late July by the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed Mr. Karzai leading with 44 percent – but his rivals are gaining. Abdullah polled 26 percent, followed by Ramazan Bashardost with 10, and Ashraf Ghani with 6. Karzai needs to get 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff on Oct. 1.
Dr. Bashardost pours scorn on IRI's poll, saying he doesn't believe the incumbent Karzai has that much support.
"After 4 o'clock, Karzai cannot control even the nearest province [to Kabul]. When I [visit people in] the Pashtun provinces, I never find any of them say, 'I support Mr. Karzai,' " says Bashardost, who also claims IRI hired unqualified students to conduct the poll.
But Bashardost is garnering newfound interest from the international media thanks to the poll, since they were caught by surprise by his respectable third place finish.
A populist candidate who runs his campaign out of a "peace tent" in Kabul, Bashardost rails against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as "no-good organizations." Remarking on wasteful spending of development dollars to a group of visiting journalists he declared: "I am a candidate of the American taxpayer."