Backroom Intrigue Persists In Afghan Presidential Election

Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan following the leading candidates in Saturday's presidential election. The top-two contenders are: Zalmai Rassoul and Abdullah Abdullah.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I'm Steve Inskeep. And Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan, where people vote for a president tomorrow. They are deciding who replaces Hamid Karzai. We've been learning on MORNING EDITION about several leading presidential contenders. Each one tells you something about a different strand of life in Afghanistan.

WERTHEIMER: Yesterday we met a candidate who favors Western-style reforms. Today we have two more presidential candidates. One is Zalmay Rassoul. He's widely viewed as the preferred candidate of President Hamid Karzai, the man who's departing after presiding over the government for a dozen years.

INSKEEP: The other candidate is Abdullah Abdullah. He used to work along side Hamid Karzai but later turned against him. He actually lost to Karzai in the last disputed election. Now, whether this election is disputed could hinge on how well Karzai's favorite performs and whether people believe in that performance. Renee says it's the kind of back-room intrigue that persists in Afghanistan .

WERTHEIMER: The presidential campaign here in Afghanistan has seen a lot of rallies. Afghans, it turns out, have a taste for crowding into stadiums to wave placards and roar their approval for the candidates of their choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: We went to this rally in the Southern city of Kandahar for candidate Abdullah Abdullah.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (through translator) What the people of Kandahar like the rest of Afghanistan want, they want security, they want justice, they want peace. They want to be at peace so they can do their farming, their business. Or for our sisters, to pave the way for them to go to school.

MONTAGNE: That's a Western-style rally. When it comes to retail politics here, Afghanistan's ancient culture comes into play. In lieu of coffee shops and smoke filled rooms there is lots of green tea and plates groaning with rice and kebabs laid out before constituents and power brokers sitting cross-legged on the grass.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (speaking foreign language)

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Here a group of elders in silk turbans use a complicated Pashtun proverb to make a serious joke about not letting anyone get away with stealing votes. It's a big issue for Abdullah Abdullah, who is still stinging from what he sees as a presidential election lost to fraud five years ago. For his part, President Karzai is still feeling insulted by being accused of fraud. The two are not friends, something made quite clear as we sat on the grass after the meal.

There's a billboard up in Kabul, a campaign poster of yours, where you're speaking in front of a large crowd but the message on it is: My only rival is fraud.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: I was asked in one interview that who is your rival. I said that my first rival is fraud and my second rival is also fraud. But what I am talking about, massive industrial-scale fraud, which hopefully will be prevented. Why am I highlighting it more than any other candidate? The others have not experienced it. I have experienced it and the country has suffered because of that.

MONTAGNE: Which is why Abdullah's campaign is deploying 20,000 observers to keep a hawk eye on the voting. It's something all the campaigns are doing, their teams armed with cell phones to document and report any vote rigging. This comes after an exodus of international monitors in the wake of several spectacular attacks by insurgents.

And this is worth noting - when Abdullah Abdullah, a key figure of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban came south to Kandahar, the very birthplace of the Taliban, he was making a powerful statement.

ABDULLAH: I think the people have reached another level. Earlier their main issues would be big issues. I am not saying that today these issues are discounted by the people, but I am saying that they want to see change, they want to see evolution, and they also understand that without working together, this country cannot be secured, cannot be saved.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

MONTAGNE: A few days later, far from the deserts of Kandahar in the snow-dusted mountains of Bamiyan, another candidate steps off a plane to a line of waiting supporters. Zalmai Rassoul is the one that everyone thinks Karzai wants to win. He arrives with his popular running mate, a woman who is also the former governor of Bamiyan. Young men idling on the street rush over to tell us who they are voting for.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm going to vote for Zalmai Rassoul because he's moderate and he's been consistent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (through translator) I'm voting for Dr. Abdullah because I believe he cares for the youth and also because I believe he will not commit fraud.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm voting for Zalmai Rassou. He's credible. He's the only person that I can trust whatever he says. I trust his words.

MONTAGNE: And as you can hear, the race is still very much up for grabs.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING)

MONTAGNE: At this gathering of Rassoul supporters, adolescent girls decked in the local costumes sing the national anthem. That's become a staple of these rallies, cementing in a way the idea that Afghanistan is one nation, and whereas Abdullah's focused on fraud and change at his rally, Zalmai Rassoul talks about continuity, calling himself the candidate of moderation.

Why is that appealing to many Afghans?

ZALMAI RASSOUL: Because Afghanistan suffered for the last 40 years by extremists. We went from one extreme, such as communism, to the either extreme which is Talibanism. In the middle, millions of people have been killed and Afghanistan was destroyed. People in Afghanistan does not believe anymore on warlord or forcing. Afghanistan is a wounded country. They need moderation.

MONTAGNE: Nowhere does that message resonate more than here in Bamiyan. It's home to the most oppressed minority in Afghanistan, the Hazaras. The world knows the terrible story of the destruction of the giant Buddhas. Far less well known are the massacres committed by the Taliban, leaving thousands in Bamiyan dead.

AMINA HOSSEINI: (Speaking foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Amina Hosseini says she was just a child when the Taliban swept in and she watched them shoot her father and 24 other men just for being the wrong ethnicity. She says her mother died from the shock of seeing her husband killed. Then, after 9/11, Hamid Karzai became president and international aid groups poured in. And for the orphaned Amina, that meant opportunity.

She was able to train as a photographer and we met her at the rally when she asked us to move out of her shot. She hasn't decided who to vote for. Zalmai Rassoul, though, appeals to many like her who have done well under President Karzai.

RASSOUL: These things should be kept. We don't want to go back to the dark time.

MONTAGNE: Still, in vowing to carry on the legacy of Karzai, Zalmai Rassoul has had to fend off fears that the president will use the levers of power and his organizational machine to put his man into the presidential palace, thus assuring Karzai becomes the power behind the throne. That, at least, is the concern for many here, and I put that to Rassoul.

RASSOUL: On the question that people are worried about me, I don't know why because I am a real democrat. On the issue of the government supporting me, the government is not supporting me. I think the Afghan people are more careful about this issue of fraud and I don't want to be elected by fraud because any candidate elected by fraud will not have the legitimacy to run this country.

MONTAGNE: Final results are not expected for weeks and virtually everyone predicts a runoff. And on the eve of the vote, Zalmai Rassoul is a long shot. Opinion polls show him far behind the two front runners. Polls also show that 75 percent of Afghans plan to vote. Afghans care deeply about this election and they believe it must reasonably free and fair in order for this country to move forward.

That's evidenced by one sight common this week, long lines of people risking their lives to wait for hours and hours to register to vote.

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