Andrew North / BBC – 2004-09-22 22:41:47
KABUL (September 22, 2005) — Afghanistan’s first presidential campaign ought to be in full swing now. But the story of this election campaign so far is that there isn’t one — at least not one you can really see and sense that people are talking about.
Yes, many of the 18 candidates have got posters up around Kabul and other cities. But so far, there have been no big public rallies or campaign events of any size — just the occasional speech to a handful of people.
For a campaign that’s officially been underway over two weeks, in a country that’s never had a proper election, many were expecting a bit more by now.
And when the frontrunner, President Hamid Karzai, launched his manifesto — with promises of future prosperity and Islamic unity — he overshadowed it himself only hours later with his bold announcement that he was removing the governor of Herat, Ismael Khan, from his post.
No one doubts his move was election-related — an attempt by President Karzai, backed by his US government supporters, to show he could stand up to one of the country’s most powerful warlords. But the immediate result was a day of fatal violence targeted against the United Nations — the main election organisers.
Challengers Making Backroom Deals
The latest to launch his programme is the man regarded as Karzai’s most significant challenger, his former education minister Yunus Qanuni. But he too overshadowed his own event by saying he had been offered, but had turned down, a deal with President Karzai.
And that is the key to understanding this first stage of the campaign, most political watchers here argue — deals.
The reason no one’s really campaigning they say, is that rather than campaigning everyone’s talking — in private — to see what they can get in return for dropping out or backing another candidate. Then again, Afghans say, that is how it was always going to be.
But for journalists, it is a bit of a struggle, working out what sort of campaign this is, and how to cover it. After all, rumours and back-room deals don’t make the most riveting television or radio.
When my phone rings these days, it’s rarely with details of the next election event, but often with fellow journalists asking if I’ve heard of anything going on. I do the same. Unfair perhaps to expect too much of Afghanistan’s first-ever elections — when even some of those running admit they’re not sure how to campaign. By the same token though, you might expect some of the enthusiasm displayed in the registration process — with millions of Afghans signing up to vote — to filter through to the campaign.
Of course, there’s another reason for this so-far lack lustre campaign — security. Many candidates say they do not feel safe to travel in many areas.
President Karzai’s one trip out of Kabul, to the southeastern city of Gardez, amply illustrated the danger. A rocket was fired at his helicopter as it was landing. His US bodyguards immediately ordered the pilots to take off again.
But there have been flashes of how the campaign could be. Just the other day President Karzai addressed an audience of invited supporters in safely protected Kabul television and radio studios.
At first, it was all fairly predictable — his speech touching on key issues like security, boosting incomes, power generation and road-building. But things came alive when Mr Karzai invited questions, ignoring his minders when they tried to suggest wrapping things up. The questions kept coming.
“Why has it taken so long to fix the roads?” a woman demanded indignantly.
“How will you deal with all the countries that threaten us”, a man asked. “Won’t you just do a deal with potential adversaries, like everyone else?” another asked.
The variety of subjects was endless. A Sikh stood up to ask why there are no Sikhs in Mr Karzai’s cabinet? “What about the drugs problem?” another man asked, “How are you going to stop it?”
But Mr Karzai was in his element, fielding the questions seriously, dodging some of them, but also joking with his audience — at one point about his security constraints — showing the charisma of a natural politician. The overwhelming view afterwards among those listening was positive.
But in some places, perhaps the campaign doesn’t matter anyway — like the Panjshir valley, home to the former mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated just days before the 11 September, 2001, attacks in the United States.
This rugged mountain area north of Kabul is the stronghold of one his former deputies, Mr Karzai’s rival, Yunus Qanuni. And here almost everyone you come across say they’ll vote for him.
“I will vote for Qanuni, because Karzai has only helped the people in Kandahar (his home province)”, said Ahmad, a shopkeeper.
“We have no power, no roads up here,” said his friend Mohammed. “What has Karzai done for us?”
But Habib, who also said he’d vote Qanuni, was hardly enthusiastic about the process and the changes in Afghanistan over the past few years. A former militia soldier who’d fought the Soviet army, he had recently been ‘disarmed’ under a nationwide programme.
But after a few months money, he said now he was getting nothing and had no job. It was much better when there was fighting he continued. “Now there is stability and there is nothing for us. War was good because everything was provided for us”.
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