Middle East

Beneath The Bunting, Afghan Shadow Campaign Kicks Off

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The Afghan presidential campaign is under way, and on the surface it looks like what you'd see in any other democracy. But underneath the decorations and sloganeering lies the shadowy practice of wooing tribal elders, warlords and other influential Afghans who can "deliver" votes or, in some cases, prevent opponents' voters from making it to the polls.


The Taliban also figure prominently in upcoming elections next door in Afghanistan. That country is poised to make history this spring by holding an election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai. It would be Afghanistan's first ever democratic transition. The campaign officially began this week. And on the surface you'll find many of the trappings of a normal race, rallies, posters, debates But NPR's Sean Carberry reports that beneath the bunting and sloganeering lies a different story of vote buying and manipulation.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: I'm standing here in the press gallery overlooking a soundstage at the studios of Afghanistan's Tolo TV where moments from now the first televised debate of the 2014 presidential campaign will take place.


CARBERRY: The TV camera pans across five candidates standing behind small podiums. Although there are 11 candidates I the race, Tolo News only invited the six perceived frontrunners to participate in this opening debate, and one dropped out at the last minute because of security concerns.


CARBERRY: The candidates fielded question about how to bring security to the country, how to curb corruption and protect women's rights. There was almost no disagreement among them and unlike debates in the U.S. there were no verbal attacks or memorable zingers.


CARBERRY: All the candidates agree Afghanistan should sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow some U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after the NATO mission expires at the end of this year. President Karzai's refusal to sign that accord has damaged relations with Washington.


CARBERRY: Candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai a former finance minister said he enjoyed the debate.

ASHRAF GHANI AHMADZAI: I think it's a unique opportunity where we focus on discussing the key issues of the country.

CARBERRY: He and other candidates felt the debate and the media exposure would help their campaigns. But how were they received by the estimated millions watching on TV and listening on radio?

MOHAMMED GHOUL: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: 38-year-old supermarket owner Mohammed Ghoul says he thought the debate was very effective and it helped him pick a candidate, though he wouldn't say which one. Other Afghans we spoke with also had positive things to say about the debate. But for all the buzz, 2009 presidential candidate Sarwar Amadzai says that's not what will determine the outcome of the election.

SARWAR AMADZAI: I think President Karzai plays a 50 percent role but the billboards and media and the poster you see will say probably 20 percent.

CARBERRY: Even though he's not running again, Karzai wields enough power to be the deciding factor in the elections, says Amadzai. The other 30 percent...

AMADZAI: So here in Waziristan ethnicity will (unintelligible) huge roles. Based on the tribal system you have to be from a famous tribe.

CARBERRY: Amadzai's from Afghanistan's majority Pashtun ethnic group as is President Karzai and ten of the eleven candidates this year. Amadzai says it was extremely difficult to get people from other ethnic groups to support him. He says that wasn't helped by Afghanistan's lack of infrastructure, security challenges and the short two-month campaign period.

AMADZAI: There were so many challenges that what we planned for did not work.

CARBERRY: He thought that being a young independent candidate with no connection to the wars that have crippled Afghanistan would be appealing to voters. But in Afghanistan warlords are still sought as running mates because they have loyal followers who can help sway the vote legally or otherwise. And Amadzai says he couldn't compete with Karzai's war chest.

AMADZAI: He spends hundreds of millions of dollars providing lots of money to the tribal chief, to influential people in the district to get their support.

CARBERRY: Amadzai finished sixth out of 38 candidates in the 2009 vote that the international community said was marred by fraud. He registered to run again this year but like 16 other perspective candidates, Afghanistan's election commission rejected his registration documents.

AMADZAI: They did not give us a single paper giving us a reason.

CARBERRY: He says the only candidates approved this year were former members of the government or otherwise well-connected figures. Amadzai and others argue it's a sign of Karzai's control over the electoral machinery. And there's little, if any debate here that Karzai wants to determine the outcome of the April 5 election. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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