Retail politics, Afghanistan-style: how two front-runners woo voters

Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai energized thousands of their respective supporters at rallies in the Panjshir Valley and Kabul.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Afghan Presidential Candidate Abdullah Abdullah arrives at a rally of thousands of supporters in his home province, March 31 in the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan. Dr. Abdullah is a frontrunner in the April 5 vote to succeed President Hamid Karzai, in an election that is seen as a test of stability for a nation torn by a Taliban insurgency.

If Afghanistan’s noisy election rallies are any indication, Afghans are set to elect a new president this week with a level of enthusiasm that is very likely to overcome Taliban efforts to disrupt the vote.

From the steep stone mountain slopes that define the northern Panjshir Valley to Kabul's Ghazi stadium, where the Taliban once conducted public executions, candidates have strained their voices, glad-handed, and given out free lunches to screaming supporters in their bid to succeed President Hamid Karzai. On an often dangerous campaign trail, they are peddling peace and progress for Afghanistan, a nation that has not seen enough of either since US forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, despite tens of billions of dollars in Western assistance.

A record 352,000 security personnel will be deployed during the election, scheduled for Saturday. But the risk of violence is still there: Afghan security forces today said they had seized more than 22 tons of explosives hidden in 450 bags in a northern province. The resurgent Taliban have mounted four high-profile attacks in Kabul in the past two weeks.

Pressure is also high in some rural provinces. In the northern Sar-e Pul Province, for example, the Taliban abducted a provincial council candidate on Sunday night. In northern Kunduz, the Taliban have been posting “night letters” warning that they will cut off the ink-stained fingers of voters and lace routes to polling stations with improved explosive devices (IEDs). Fears rose further yesterday, when 14 members of a police commander's family were killed by an IED in one village; in another, an IED killed the head of the criminal investigation department.

Despite fears of Taliban violence, however, Afghan voters have lined up, sometimes before dawn, to register, and rallies have attracted thousands for a vote that will mark Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power and serve as a key test for continued Western aid.

Defying the danger

“What should be the response from the public? Defy the [Taliban] message by participation,” Abdullah Abdullah, a frontrunner from the Panshir Valley, told the Monitor in an interview after addressing thousands of supporters in his home province on Monday, alongside a snow-fed river.

He says he holds himself to the same standard of danger. When Dr. Abdullah’s motorcade arrived at the rally, for example, it was swarmed in chaotic scenes of jubilation that are among the riskiest moments for all candidates.

“Wasn’t there a possibility of a suicide [bomber]?” asks Abdullah, a former foreign minister who ran for president in 2009 but lost in that fraud-tainted vote. He had also addressed a large rally the day before in Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold in the south. “But the people know there is a risk, the people take the risk.”

Afghan voters are eager, says Abdullah, to address an “absolute” weakness of leadership that has allowed a Taliban resurgence and threat of continued insecurity after US and NATO forces largely withdraw later this year. By way of example, he points to a recent rally in Kunduz, just ahead of which, he says, at least five of his supporters were killed by a Taliban suicide bomber.

“Their families sent a message," Abdullah says: " ‘Don’t cancel the rally, because our enemies will feel that they have succeeded.’ ”

Ghani: praising women as 'heroes'

That same defiance was also on display today in Kabul, when thousands of Afghans overcame fear to rally in support of another front-runner, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Under tight security, the former finance minister and World Bank official, who returned to the country in 2002, spoke at the infamous stadium where the Taliban once meted out harsh justice to criminals – amputating limbs and conducting executions.

Many in attendance were impressed with Mr. Ghani’s academic credentials, some aware that he had been voted second place in a 2013 “world thinkers” poll by Prospect Magazine.

“Ashraf Ghani is the second-most educated person in the world, he can do anything,” insists Haji Mirajam Suleimankhil, who traveled more than 100 miles from Paktika Province. Mohammad Naeim, a 17-year-old student who held an Afghan flag, echoed that sentiment: “We need an educated person, and he can bring brightness in the future.”

In his speech, Ghani spoke broadly of “defending the saints of jihad” and of supporting free speech – but not the kind that will further divide Afghan tribes. He engaged in retail politics, acknowledging the many problems of Kabul, from rampant corruption to traffic congestion. Ghani said he would work for young people, and praised Afghan women as “heroes,” drawing cheers from one-quarter of the tiered stadium seats reserved for women, none of whom completely covered their faces with burqas. Ghani said educating women was important because “one educated woman in Afghan society educates a whole family.”

Both Abdullah's and Ghani's rallies passed off without incident.

Abdullah: time to rectify 'mistakes'

Back in the Panjshir on Monday, Abdullah talked about rectifying a series of “mistakes” made in the past 13 years, due to “the absence of vision with our leaders, absence of sense of direction, and absence of the will and dedication” to solve Afghanistan’s problems.

“I am not a sort of fake politician, I am not something that has been brought here by the wind from the West or the wind from the north,” Abdullah told the Monitor in the interview, speaking in English. “I know my people, I know my country. There are candidates who know other countries better than they know Afghanistan, and then they can solve [problems] elsewhere much better than here,” he says, referring obliquely to his main rival, Ghani.

A top priority – for him and other candidates – is signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States that will ensure continued but limited military support beyond 2014.

That sits well with supporter Ramakhuda Afzali, a driver who says he is out of work because the deal has not been signed. “We came to elect our president, because now the president [Karzai] is only for the rich people, and not the poor,” he says. He, like many others, had waited in the sun for hours to hear a candidate admired for his role as a doctor for the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in the mid-1980s.

Abdullah points to other failures as well, including the mid-February release by Afghan authorities of 65 prisoners, considered “dangerous militants” by the US. Abdullah says he is “not surprised” by the subsequent rise of Taliban violence.

“You release the most brutal criminals, terrorists, you release them in the society, and that weakens the resolve of your institutions, weakens the morale of your own people, that encourages those [insurgents],” says Abdullah. “They were war criminals and terrorists, who committed heinous crimes; they get off scot-free. That’s not helpful.”

Abdullah says if the Taliban continue with violence, they will be “dealt with clearly,” a message that pleases his supporters at the rally, many of whom chafe at Karzai’s longstanding aim of negotiating with the Taliban, even calling them welcome “brothers” in the past.

“The president sent our country to the flames,” said Reza Khan, a stout former mujahideen commander who wants Abdullah to win. “[Karzai] calls the Taliban ‘my brother,’ then on this side he calls us ‘brother.’ ”

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott

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