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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne in Kabul.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington, where people are anxiously watching Kabul because they want to know how the presidential election in Afghanistan will turn out. Renee, you've been introducing us to some of the candidates there, which helps us understand some of the ways that Afghanistan is changing. Who do we meet today?

MONTAGNE: We will be meeting Ashraf Ghani. He's a man who, like many of his countrymen, spent the darkest years away from this country. And as to the story of how Ghani returned, it was just after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and he'd been out of the country since the Soviet invasion. As he tells it, he was absorbing ideas about Western-style governance and commerce, and at the time, he was a senior analyst at the World Bank. He was invited by Hamid Karzai to become part of Afghanistan's new government just at the moment when peace finally seemed at hand.

Mr. ASHRAF GHANI (Finance Minister, Afghanistan): He asked me - I still remember very vividly. He said, there are no benefits, but your country needs you. Will you join me?

MONTAGNE: With that, Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan's new finance minister, presiding over a country and a currency in ruins. These days, Ashraf Ghani is trying to unseat the president he once served.

Mr. GHANI: Salam alaikum. Salam alaikum. Salam alaikum. Salam alaikum. Salam alaikum.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: We're hearing here the candidate Ashraf Ghani greeting reporters and a group of enthusiastic supporters who are waving campaign placards at him. He then launches into his case against the Karzai government, which he has for years, in the most scathing terms, blamed for the country's widespread corruption and poor economy.

Mr. GHANI: We need to have the elections because this government has run out of the fundamental asset that any government in the 21st century needs: legitimacy.

MONTAGNE: And on that score, Ashraf Ghani has some personal history. He comes from a land-owning family of the powerful Ahmadzai tribe that has served Afghanistan's rulers for centuries as ministers and generals. On this day, I've joined him at the house he built back in 2002 when he returned, in which every room is exquisitely crafted to reflect the charms of Afghanistan's different provinces. We sit down for an interview in a tent made of reeds, cross-legged on traditional rugs. Ghani is still excited about the presidential debate that he took part in last week.

Mr. GHANI: I think this country went through a remarkable experience. For the first time in its history, probably six to eight million people simultaneously experienced an event, a serious, in-depth conversation about the future of the country.

MONTAGNE: One of the things Ashraf Ghani is running on is his past success as finance minister. He created a banking system, computerized the treasury and introduced, quite efficiently, a new currency - still, for a candidate, hardly the dramatic profile of the other major challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, who's associated with Afghanistan's freedom fighters.

You do have a reputation as an intellectual, a technocrat - no disrespect, a technocrat...

Mr. GHANI: No, no, no, of course not. That's okay.

MONTAGNE: ...a man who gets things done. In politics, that's not always enough to get people to vote for you in large numbers. There's sometimes a different sort of desires at work, and that is may be for someone who is super tough in order to deal with the super-tough world of politics.

Mr. GHANI: I'm a man of the people. Four days ago, I was sitting for 30 minutes with watermelon sellers. I've talked to over 100,000 Afghans in the past year - not in big rallies, that's been thousands of those, but as individuals, as small groups. I reflect their fears, but I also reflect their hopes.

MONTAGNE: Have you been able to take your campaign to areas where there's great conflict?

Mr. GHANI: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: Helmand?

Mr. GHANI: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: Kandahar?

Mr. GHANI: I've been to Logar. I held a rally of about 1,500 people in Logar. Logar is considered extremely insecure, and there were at least 400 members of armed opposition in the rally.

MONTAGNE: People with guns sitting there.

Mr. GHANI: They didn't bring their guns. But that's Afghan culture.

MONTAGNE: They are part of what you call the armed opposition?

Mr. GHANI: Yes, absolutely.

MONTAGNE: So that would be Taliban?

Mr. GHANI: Yes, absolutely.

MONTAGNE: Do you think they'd vote?

Mr. GHANI: We need to see. The jury is still out.

MONTAGNE: But why do you think they're in the audience?

Mr. GHANI: Because they're testing. They're testing, they want to see whether to disrupt, whether to kill or whether to join or - they're Afghans.

MONTAGNE: You did not worry that you would be assassinated?

Mr. GHANI: I have to be able to take that risk. I cannot hide from my people.

MONTAGNE: Still, this is not a candidate who is depending entirely on rallies and retail politics to reach out to those who might vote for him. Ghani was the first candidate in Afghanistan to put up a sophisticated Web site aimed at getting support and lots of small donations. In this, he's taken a page from Barack Obama's groundbreaking online politicking, and that has drawn to Ghani's campaign young, well-educated supporters like Hamdullah Mohib, who created the web site.

Mr. HAMDULLAH MOHIB: Everyone has a phone now. You know, they can store videos. So they download videos from YouTube and then they pass it along. I mean, I got an email from Khost.

MONTAGNE: And Khost being east of Kabul, but not so advanced.

Mr. MOHIB: Yeah, not so - and this was in a village. And the supporter said I've passed the video along to a hundred of my colleagues. Nobody expected that. You know, I didn't even expect it.

MONTAGNE: With this e-campaign, they're hoping to bring in a million dollars, which Ashraf Ghani says would go a long way here in Afghanistan.

You know, your campaign is quite a modern-style campaign. You also - am I right? Are you also being advised by James Carville?

Mr. GHANI: Yes, I am.

MONTAGNE: And what sort of advice are you looking to get from him?

Mr. GHANI: Staying on message. Part of the discipline of campaigning is to stay focused, to be able to deliver one's core messages in a consistent manner, because each new audience is new to me, but they've not heard what I've talked to the previous ones. And he comes with such vast experience. New Orleans is not very different from Afghanistan. (Laughing) He's really...

MONTAGNE: Louisiana-style politics...

Mr. GHANI: Yes, absolutely.

MONTAGNE: ...would be familiar to the people here.

Mr. GHANI: Yes, yes, yes, absolutely.

MONTAGNE: Which gets us back to political corruption, Ghani's big issue. One of his charges in this campaign is that the incumbent has used the power of the presidential office to bestow plum government positions in exchange for support. President Karzai has denied all such charges.

But when it comes to the subject of the actual voting, Ashraf Ghani is quick to cite figures that show in some conservative provinces up to 70 percent of the registered voters are women.

Mr. GHANI: Meaning that they will stuff the boxes with non-existing women's votes, because that's what they have done in parliamentary elections in the past.

MONTAGNE: And why women?

Mr. GHANI: Women, because you cannot ask them for authentication.

MONTAGNE: Often wearing burqas and...

Mr. GHANI: Yes, exactly. So in the name of cultural accommodation, it opens up fraud.

MONTAGNE: You have evidence, though?

Mr. GHANI: Yes. But nobody will come to a court of law to testify this because they are frightened out of their wits. These are the open secrets of this country. So the checks and balance that's supposed to exist, according to our constitution, is destroyed.

MONTAGNE: It sounds like Cook County...

Mr. GHANI: Exactly, absolutely.

MONTAGNE: ...in 1960. It sounds like Louisiana...

Mr. GHANI: It does.

MONTAGNE: ...through Huey Long.

Mr. GHANI: Or New York before Teddy Roosevelt.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

Mr. GHANI: The comparisons are apt, but also it shows that a reform constituency can actually make an enormous difference. And so we are very much in that type of moment: a choice between consolidation of corruption, or a reform system where the people will finally become the owners of this country.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. GHANI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Ashraf Ghani, who is running for president here in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: And Renee, he's running in an election that the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, was expected to dominate. I know that's changed somewhat, but realistically, what are the challengers' chances?

MONTAGNE: Well, there is some optimism that between Ashraf Ghani and the other major challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, they can prevent President Karzai from at least getting 50 percent of the vote and then that would force this election into a runoff.

INSKEEP: Okay. And we'll continue listening to some of the other challengers with Renee tomorrow. She's going to talk to a former communist, a former member of the Taliban, and a candidate who really brings us into the 21st century, a woman.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And with the news from Afghanistan, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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