The smiles are big and in most cases the turbans are even bigger. The posters went up as soon as the campaign to choose a new president officially got under way this week, and walls in the Afghan capital are now festooned with images of the candidates.
It’s a contest that rivals to Hamid Karzai have promised to turn into a “referendum on the warlords”. Mr Karzai, who has led the Afghan administration since soon after the Americans helped to oust the Taleban from power in 2001 – but by electoral mandate since 2004 – is widely predicted to win again. But he is hardly popular.
His opponents plan to tap into the latent disenchantment with Government corruption, and the influence that regional warlords exert. “The President has declared war on the people by forming an administration that is the embodiment of ‘corruption incorporate’,” Ashraf Ghani, a leading opposition candidate and former finance minister, told The Times.
“The state apparatus has been auctioned off to power brokers. The people Karzai has bought are the key actors of the civil war period [of the 1990s]. He thinks those are the real forces and actors in Afghanistan.”
Dr Ghani said that he had “opted for a different way” and would turn the election on August 20 into a debate on the future of the country. That appeal towards national sentiment may not be enough in a country riven by ethnic and local divisions.
Polling by the International Republican Institute suggested that Mr Karzai has about 41 per cent support, a modest slump since he won a first term with 55.4 per cent of votes in 2004.
The poll, however, offers little encouragement for his 40 presidential opponents, suggesting that none of them enjoys more than 5 per cent support. They argue that they have not yet enjoyed sufficient exposure to offer an alternative to Mr Karzai. The President has also sensed his opponents’ disunity and can, for now at least, count on the support of most of the country’s unelected powerbrokers.
Endorsements for Mr Karzai have come from powerful warlords who were able to deliver the votes of entire ethnic blocs during the 2004 elections in which many of them stood.
Mohammad Mohaqeq, one such former warlord, an ethnic Hazara leader, told supporters on Friday that Mr Karzai had promised five Cabinet posts for Hazara support. Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek strongman, has told his followers that they have been pledged three Cabinet positions for their support.
Western diplomats were particularly downcast when Mr Karzai named Marshal Mohammad Fahim, a former warlord, as one of his vice-presidential choices.