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.

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.

Karzai leading

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."

His blunt talk has won over some Afghans. Among the crowds who packed streets and hung precariously from rooftops in Daikundi's bazaar Friday to hear Abdullah, some said they planned to vote for Bashardost. That included Sayad Mohammad Alawi and Sher Hussain, who were among Abdullah's badge-wearing rally helpers, and Sayad Ayat, a farmer who made the 30-minute donkey trek here out of curiosity.

"A lot of people coming here doesn't mean they are going to support Abdullah," says Mr. Hussain. He said he was there out of respect for the deceased leader of the Shiite Eqtedar-e Melli party, which has endorsed Abdullah. Indeed, the party patriarch drew louder applause than Abdullah when their names were called.

Yes they can

Yet Abdullah also had ardent fans in the crowd, including Mahboba Amiri. She had heard his speeches on radio and television and likes his "respectable" message.

Abdullah told the crowd he would improve the roads, and "inshallah" (God willing), build a university in the town.

"The message is change and hope," Abdullah told the applauding crowd, echoing buzzwords from President Barack Obama's campaign. "Where is the construction here? People talk of equal development, but we don't see equal development. I think the bazaar here might be the same as it was 30 years ago."

In an interview with the Monitor, Abdullah says he attributes his strong second-place showing in the polls to this sort of campaigning.

"Get right in the middle of the people, don't follow them in the halls of Kabul," is how he explains his strategy. "Instead of relying on the old power brokers, go to the grassroots."

He says he plans to skip a televised debate scheduled for this Sunday, dashing hopes that it would be the first to have all the top candidates in attendance.

Tricking voters

While some of the "grassroots" may have been brought to him on Friday, at least nobody in Daikundi mentioned being tricked into attending. That was the accusation leveled after a Karzai campaign rally for women in Kabul on Thursday.

"We were told in the school there is a seminar here today ... and 13 teachers from every school should attend," says Kabul schoolteacher Humira Amiri, who could not name which higher-ups gave the order. "Most teachers who are here did not know" it was a Karzai rally, she says.

Asked whether they thought these splashy rallies really win over many voters, Abdullah's campaign manager Registani says that "psychologically its very important, but technically it's not enough." Transporting people to the polls will be key, he says.

Van Bijlert agrees the rallies do play a role in the democratic process here. "In a way, it's quite vibrant politicking. I think in any country, a campaign is about image and perceptions," she says. "It shows strength – if you don't do it at all, you are not a serious candidate."

But it's no determinate of an election and Afghans are showing signs of independence in making up their minds.

"Some people make it sound like it's just money, which it's not. People are also interested in the content of it," says Van Bijlert.

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