Candidates take to the road for Afghan presidential election campaign

Abdullah Abdullah joins the fray in what could be Afghanistan’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power

“What do you want? I’m ready to listen!” presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah roared to the crowd through speakers reverberating with feedback, on a platform surrounded by palm trees and set against the snowy caps of the Hindu Kush mountains.

From the crowd came cries for a road, a canal, flood defences. Old men pushed forward with handwritten demands on scraps of paper, while a sick young boy tried to squirm through the ropes holding back the crowd to give the politicians on stage a dossier about his illness.

The rally was the first campaign foray by a would-be president outside Kabul, where the bureaucratic and political preparations for the historic 5 April vote have all been centred. The capital exerts a huge cultural and political tug on Afghanistan. It is home to more than one in 10 of its people, a magnet for economic migrants and those fleeing violence, and a bubble of relative safety for the elite and foreigners. But it is not where the election will be won.

The battleground states of the campaign will be places such as eastern Jalalabad city, a crowded regional hub where Abdullah staged his rally, and the countryside around it.

More than three-quarters of Afghans still live in rural areas, often as subsistence farmers scratching a living from the country’s arid valleys or the fringes of its forbidding deserts. Some will be barred from voting by Taliban violence or the unbending dictates of geography, but others will help decide the election, often voting at the suggestion or order of leaders whose backing the presidential candidates are vying to secure.

The incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is barred from standing again, which means that if the election goes smoothly, it will be the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. As he has not publicly anointed a successor, it also means votes he won in 2009 may be up for grabs.

Plenty of the president’s former supporters were in the crowd waiting to meet Abdullah, an elegant ophthalmologist who swapped medicine for a life in the anti-Soviet resistance, and is the political heir to the assassinated mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Masoud.

“In the last election, the people in my district voted for Karzai,” said Zulmay Muslimyar, a 46-year-old politician and community leader from Khas Kunar district, who has shifted allegiances to Abdullah’s ticket this election. “They went home with ink on their fingers, and the Taliban cut them off for voting. But Karzai ruled for himself and his close associates, not for the nation.”

Like all the main candidates, Abdullah has put together an ethnically mixed slate to try to reach across the country’s divides and pluck votes from as many groups as possible. His own base lies among Tajiks in the country’s north, so the thousands of Pashtun supporters who turned out on a February morning to wave small plastic flags and shout “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is greatest”) on cue were mostly attracted by the first visit of a vice-presidential candidate.

Engineer Mohammad Khan is a member of the Hizb-i Islami, the political wing of insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s party. They have historically been bitter enemies of Abdullah’s party, but in the rush for victory old animosities have been temporarily buried.

“He is Afghan and a mujahid [independence fighter],” said 52-year-old Azizullah, a Hizb-i Islami supporter, cheering more dutifully than enthusiastically from a seat near the front of the rally.

The centrepiece rally featured speeches and dignitaries vouching silent support by their presence on the platform. When it ended there were behind-doors discussions with local power-brokers.

Real risks

Because all the would-be presidents have used their three-person ticket to bring together voters from different power blocks, campaigning will be intense. Billboards, city walls and social media are already plastered with thousands of posters of smiling candidates greeting elders, speaking to students or playing out other election cliches.

Travelling in a convoy of more than 20 vehicles, Abdullah halted for a photoshoot to drink tea with elders on the highway, then stopped again for an unscheduled chat with schoolboys pouring out of class, a politician’s move around the world but one that in Afghanistan sent his security team into paroxysms of worry.

There are real risks to candidates’ lives from a fierce insurgency which has already declared the election a “waste of time” and made a series of deadly attacks on polling officials and campaign team members. All 11 candidates have been issued with police bodyguards and a million-dollar fleet of bulletproof 4x4s; they are expected to get government helicopter rides to areas where the roads are too risky even for well prepared and protected convoys.

On the way back to Kabul, Abdullah’s convoy came under attack from gunmen who then vanished into the rocky landscape. The road is largely in government hands, but it slips down through steep valleys that offer convenient vantage points for Taliban looking to stage an ambush. There are always worries that a lone suicide bomber could sneak into a rally or meeting.

No one was killed or injured by the shooting and there are no plans to scale back travel or campaigning after the attack, his team said. Karzai’s most serious rival in the 2009 election, he has spent the five years since in opposition, cultivating his support networks, because complicated ethnic politics means he is only likely to secure the presidential palace if he can manage a knock-out win in the first round.

“I have got confidence that I can do this because of the feeling we are getting from people around the country … It is different this time from five years ago,” Abdullah told journalists during the tea break. “My strategy for victory is to win in the first round.”

Additional reporting by Mokhtar Amiri © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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