Afghanistan election campaign opens amid security concerns, disorganization
Los Angeles Times
By Laura King

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — The campaign for Afghanistan’s first national elections in five years got off to a subdued start today, shadowed by security fears and marked by the chronic disorganization that characterizes most large-scale endeavors here.

None of the three main presidential candidates made a public appearance on the first official day of the two-month campaign, and out in Afghanistan’s vast hinterlands, many candidates for provincial and national assemblies stayed home, saying traditional campaign activities like rallies would be far too dangerous.

In Kabul, the capital, campaign workers were out before dawn, plastering walls and utility poles and the city’s few trees with campaign posters. By midday, many of the posters had been torn down or defaced and, in some cases, papered over with a rival’s image.

The ballot for the Aug. 20 vote is laden with 41 presidential candidates, most of whom are considered to have no chance of victory. The only qualifications for running for president are holding Afghan citizenship and being at least 40 years old.

Last week, when the final list of candidates was compiled, the head of the election commission told reporters he was “ashamed” that lawmakers had failed to set basic requirements for seeking the country’s highest office, such as the ability to read and write. Some candidates, he said, were illiterate.

Providing a secure environment for the vote will be an enormous challenge for NATO and U.S. forces in a country where the burgeoning insurgency has rendered large swaths of territory unsafe for travel, particularly in Afghanistan’s south.

In Helmand, the country’s largest opium-producing region and the scene of heavy fighting between coalition troops and the Taliban, officials said this week that five of the province’s 13 districts were outside the government’s control.

Western commanders have described election security as a key undertaking, and President Obama’s decision to deploy 21,000 extra U.S. troops here over the summer was driven in part by the desire to safeguard the vote.

President Hamid Karzai, who has led the country since 2001, is the frontrunner, but his popularity has slid sharply over the past two years, and polls suggest he might have trouble garnering the 50% of votes needed to win. In that case, a runoff would be held in the fall.

Karzai’s campaign manager, Haji Din Mohammed, dismissed a poll released Monday by the International Republican Institute indicating the president’s voter support had fallen to 31%. Other surveys have pointed to widespread disenchantment among the populace, citing corruption, pervasive violence and inefficient governance.

“These polls are not neutral,” Mohammed said. “No other candidate has his [Karzai’s] standing.”

That same poll by the IRI, a nonprofit group funded by the U.S. government and affiliated with the Republican Party, put the level of support for Karzai’s two main challengers in single digits.

Each is a former Cabinet minister who had a falling-out with the president: Abdullah Abdullah is an ex-foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani previously served as finance minister.

“Karzai has failed to manage the country — it needs to be dragged out of crisis,” said Abdullah’s campaign manager, Abdul Satar Mured.

The Afghan leader rattled many in the international community when he picked a notorious ex-warlord, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, as one of his two running mates. Fahim has been accused of serious human rights abuses, and the United Nations and a number of foreign diplomats had privately entreated Karzai not to put him on the ticket.

Even before the campaign began, the president’s opponents accused him of using his incumbency to unfair advantage, pointing to his daily appearances on state television and suggesting he might use official trips around the country to drum up support.

Karzai’s senior campaign aides — some of whom resigned their government jobs only on the morning the campaign officially kicked off — insisted there would be a strict separation of government and campaign business.

On its opening day, the campaign had a distinctly ad hoc air. Most candidates have yet to open campaign headquarters or recruit staff — though Ghani, a well-educated technocrat with an international reputation, has launched a website for fundraising.

At a news conference by the Karzai campaign, in a basement room at his headquarters, an aide scurried through the crowded room at the last moment, spraying disinfectant. Another major candidate’s campaign manager, queried about his platform, asked: “What is that?”

But the notion of democracy still has the power to inspire. This is only Afghanistan’s second democratic election, and for many people, the memory of Taliban rule, which ended with the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, is still fresh.

“I like the idea that I have something to say about something important,” said a street vendor named Najibullah. “Even if I am not sure it will change anything.”

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