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Afghanistan goes to the polls

By Alex Thomson

Updated on 20 August 2009

Millions have headed to the polls in Afghanistan for the country's presidential election. Alex Thomson reports from Kabul and casts an eye over the main presidential candidates.

Afghanistan election poster (Getty images)

Millions have begun voting in Afghanistan's second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban.

Men and women headed to the polls despite sporadic attacks from militants.

Three leading candidates, and even by Afghan standards there is a lot to choose from.

No leading women in this race of around 36 presidential wannabees. But hey, this whole pooling gig is in its early days just now.

So what have you got as you peruse your ballot paper (and probably do that as fast as possible in case the Taliban decide to target your friendly local polling station)?

The accompanying report contains flash photography.

Ramazan Bashardost
Well, your tribe still matters a lot in Afghanistan, so let’s get that out of the way.

Mr B is an ethnic Hazara, so has that distinctly Mongolian look. His USP is billing himself as an Afghan Mahatma Gandhi. So he lives in a tent in a Kabuli central park.

He has foresworn taking a wife. Asceticism is his trademark because he is fighting the corruption of Afghanistan’s public and private life above all other issues.

Cure this and you can begin rebuilding the country, and the people will fall in with the government , not drift towards the Taliban and the general insurgency.

Like all the frontrunners, he saves the real vituperation for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, accusing him of all manner of criminality. Rarely seen with his “X-Files”, as he calls them – a folder of evidence of corruption compiled not just against President Karzai but also against other rivals, notably Dr Abdullah Abdullah.

Some pools now put him up from fourth to third in the running. Behind the simple life and style lurks a man of real intellect who studied in Paris.

Dr Abdullah Abdullah
Once the voice of the Northern Alliance militia and close aide to the militia leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, “The Lion of the Panjshir Valley”.

Dapper, genial and ever-available to the media, he claims his rebel background and easy adjustment to the diplomacy of Washington and beyond mark him as the man who can end the war with the insurgency, as President Karzai has failed to do.

He dismisses the president with a wave of his hand as a petulant dictator who has broken every law you can break to mire the country in corruption and lawlessness.

His big pitch is that he alone can reach out to the moderate Taliban and persuade them to engage. An ethnic Tajik from the north, like Ramazan Bashardost, he will find it hard to pull in voters from the Pashtun-dominated south and east of the country.

Nonetheless, the smart money says he is the only person on Planet Earth who really can unseat President Karzai, or at least force it all to a second showdown vote in October, by stopping the incumbent from reaching 51 per cent of the vote needed for first-round election.

An eye specialist by trade – hence the “Dr” bit.

Ashraf Ghani
The man for all Afghans and the man who has actually had power and changed life forever.

That’s the pitch of this diminutive, amiable former World Bank official who was also a finance minister and who really did crack down on corruption and cut the riches of many a warlord down to size.

He can, he says, appeal to Afghan villagers because that’s where he came from. That he can cope at the highest diplomatic and political level is a proven matter of record – check the CV.

If anything, the weak point would be that he lacks the front-of-house charisma that both Bashardost and Abdullah have in abundance. Does quiet efficiency and proven achievement play as well?

The polls say no, but MPs I’ve spoken to say he is gaining strength, particularly in the south and east of the country.

A clear line on corruption and lawlessness – he says under the Taliban a woman could walk around (accompanied by a man and wearing a burka, of course) with a million quid in her bag with no security problem. Now she couldn’t even drive.

And corruption? In Kabul you have to pay a bribe to officials in order to pay your electricity bill. He is, he insists, the proven candidate to end all this and parley with the Talibs. Tried and tested.

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