In Afghanistan, candidates for the Aug. 20 presidential election are employing many political strategies common in the West, including wooing the minority vote.
But only one minority group in Afghanistan is worth wooing: the Hazaras. They make up most of the country's small Shiite population and claim to be descended from soldiers of Genghis Khan, who pillaged Afghanistan in the 13th century.
An ethnic Hazara man sits on the porch of a tea shop on the southwestern edge of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. The Hazara minority is poised to play a key role in the Aug. 20 presidential elections and provincial council races.
Mohammad Mohaqiq is the leader of the Hazara ethnic minority. As a warlord who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, he now commands wide support in northern and central Afghanistan.
A Hazara breadmaker sits in his Kabul shop as a delivery boy is reflected in the window. Afghanistan's Hazara minority is one of the smallest in the country, and in the political arena has always been dominated by the Pashtuns in the south and the Tajiks in the north.
A boy stands against the wall of a Hazara tea shop on the outskirts of Kabul. Presidential candidates are courting the Hazara vote, which could make a difference for incumbent President Hamid Karzai in the first round of voting.
A Hazara boy stands in the doorway of a tea shop on the outskirts of Kabul. The tea shops are a gathering place for the local Hazara residents to mingle and talk.
Ramzan Bashardost, a Hazara, is a popular member of Afghanistan's Parliment and is longshot candidate for president. He has won over voters by living and working out of a tent near Parliment's main building."The Afghan people ... are tired about discrimination, about this kind of separation and distinction between people," he says.
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For much of recent history, the Hazaras have been a poor and often despised ethnic group in the country.
Now, they are politically valuable because other groups — in the south, the Pashtuns; in the north, Tajiks and Uzbeks — cancel each other out. The minority Hazaras are just big enough to tip that balance.
Wielding Political Heft
Mohammad Mohaqiq is a Hazara leader.
"It's estimated Hazaras make 20 percent of the voters here. So any side that we Hazaras support, that side's weight will be much bigger," he says from his home in Kabul.
Over the past few years, with Hamid Karzai as president, the lives of Hazaras have improved immensely. They have access to jobs and schooling they couldn't get before, and a grand, blue-tiled Shiite university has risen in Kabul's Hazara neighborhood.
In this election, Karzai and other candidates are going after the Hazara vote big time.
"I was promised [by Karzai] there would be five Hazaras named as ministers in his Cabinet, that one of his two vice presidents would be Hazara, that two new provinces would be carved out for Hazaras, and that there would be projects to make life better for Hazaras," Mohaqiq says.
The Hazara leader says he was made the same basic offer by Karzai's most powerful challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
But Mohaqiq thinks the incumbent is the best man for the job and has committed to campaign for Karzai in provinces dominated by Hazaras.
On a recent day, a bus headed toward Hazara areas — towns such as Tezak and Mirazar — stops in front of a bakery and tea shop in Kabul's Hazara neighborhood.
Abdul Waheed, a bus dispatcher, says he voted for Karzai in the last presidential election.
When asked if he takes the advice of Hazara leaders or parliamentarians, he says he listens to their opinions, but he makes his own decisions.
At this, the baker, Hoy Dahdad, says he is voting for someone else.
When asked if it mattered that Mohaqiq, the Hazara leader, is campaigning for Karzai, the baker replies: "It will not affect my decision because it is my personal decision. In the past five years, [Karzai] has not done anything for the people. Particularly when it comes to fighting al-Qaida, he has not been able to eradicate al-Qaida activities from southern Afghanistan. I think Dr. Abdullah will be better and will do a better job than Karzai."
Candidate Downplays Minority Identity
Still, it's not at all clear that either of the two main challengers will be able to claim or even split the Hazara vote because there is another long-shot candidate out on the stump whose name rang out during a sidewalk poll of favorites: Ramazan Bashardost, a fellow Hazara whose own philosophy does not allow for such ethnic divisions.
"Afghan people are very tired about discrimination, about this kind of distinction or separation between people," Bashardost says, from the tent in which he campaigns and sometimes lives.
Emblazoned on the tent is the word "change."
He calls it the "Nation's Tent," and it has made him famous as a politician who rejects the big cars, the armed guards, the suspiciously nice houses that many politicians in Afghanistan seem to favor.
In this, Bashardost is a proud maverick — traveling by bicycle or car to meet the people in every corner of Afghanistan, despite the war going on around the country.
Bashardost says he travels without bodyguards and never phones ahead to seek protection from police or other government officials. He goes about as an ordinary Afghan would, he says.
Returning to Afghanistan in 2002 after 20 years in France and clutching a fistful of higher degrees, Bashardost made it his job to champion the little guy.
Named minister of planning, Bashardost immediately called for all nongovernmental organizations to be kicked out of the country, tapping into a general resentment among Afghans aimed at these apparently high-living foreigners.
Running for Parliament in 2004, Bashardost received the third-highest number of votes. But he is not without his critics.
Progress For Hazaras
Parliamentarian and reformer Daoud Sultanzoi is leery of Bashardost's populism.
"[He] is not a principled man, he's a populist," Sultanzoi says.
"He sounds good to poor people. All the NGOs should vacate their offices ... for the homeless people of Kabul in the winter. This sounds great to the homeless people of Kabul. The vast majority of the country is poor, and we have to keep that in our political calculation. Unless we pay attention to creating political organizations that can address these issues, we're facing a huge problem," he says.
That's not something Bashardost appears to spend any time worrying about.
Instead, he's living a kind of political miracle in Afghanistan: He's a Hazara who is sought out on the street and invited to dinner by people who might have once looked down on him.