Accessibility links

Afghan 'Gandhi' Running a People-Centric Election Campaign

  • Abubakar Siddique

Ramazan Bashardost talks with Afghan men as he campaigns on the streets of Kabul in July.

Ramazan Bashardost talks with Afghan men as he campaigns on the streets of Kabul in July.

While most Afghan presidential contenders campaign from fortified headquarters or travel in armored cars with gun-toting bodyguards, one candidate is getting his message out to remote corners of Afghanistan in a rickety minibus.

Meet Ramzan Bashardost -- according to the polls, the third most popular candidate among the 35 contenders, with 9 percent of all decided Afghans saying they are willing to vote for him

Many observers say that one of the most significant developments in the ongoing election campaign in Afghanistan is the relative success of Bashardost's campaign.

Some have dubbed the former planning minister "Afghanistan's Gandhi" for his personal integrity, his ascetic style, and inclusive message.

While Western generals and Afghan politicians issue daily reminders of the worsening security situation, Bashardost can be seen walking around the crowded streets of the capital, Kabul, and other Afghan cities. He alternates between his small Suzuki car and a wobbly minibus to make bone-jarring journeys to distant provinces, where he pitches his "Nation's Tent" before going out to meet people in their shops, homes, and public squares.

"When I travel to the provinces, I personally do not feel insecure. I haven't done anything wrong. I haven't spilled the blood of Afghan people and have neither taken their land by force," Bashardost tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan while campaigning in Tarin Kowt, the dusty capital of southern Uruzgan Province.

"No one Afghan is my enemy. But the people in all the provinces of Afghanistan are suffering from insecurity," he added.

Uruzgan and the surrounding provinces in southern Afghanistan are considered home to the Taliban insurgency. Most NATO supplies to Tarin Kowt are taken by helicopter because the roads are deemed too dangerous.

Popular Populist

The 43-year-old Bashardost lived in France for two decades and has a doctorate in law. He briefly served in the administration of President Hamid Karzai as planning minister. But he left the cabinet after voicing popular Afghan demands for stricter accountability standards for local and international aid agencies, which are often perceived as corrupt.

His public stance made him so popular that he was elected to parliament with a huge margin in 2005. In a legislature seen as dominated by warlords, he champions the cause of the poor and lives in a yellow tent opposite the parliament, which now also serves as his campaign headquarters.

He is different from other candidates in that he was the first to come to Khost. And that he is like an ordinary citizen with no protocols.
Bashardost's populism is appealing to many Afghans weary of what they see as a corrupt and callous political elite.

On July 25, while six suicide attackers hit the southeastern city of Khost, Bashardost continued campaigning there, selling his posters and business cards for a few cents to fund his campaign.

Local journalist Zahid Shah Angar tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that his simplicity and asceticism have impressed locals.

"He truly is a man of the people," Angar says. "I saw him walking around like a common man. People liked this and greeted him, promising that they would vote for him. He is different from other candidates in that he was the first to come to Khost. And that he is like an ordinary citizen with no protocols."

Bashardost's campaign website boasts a detailed manifesto and governance plans. But everywhere he goes, Bashardost has a simple message and a straightforward promise: clean government.

"Inshallah, we will have sympathetic, clean, pious, and expert ministers," Bashardost told supporters at a recent campaign rally. "Every minister will be a patriot and experienced in his field. Indeed, [the ministers] would certainly solve the problems of each province, district, and village."

Leads By Example

Never married, Bashardost devotes his life to politics. And he leads by example, distributing most of his $2,000 monthly salary to poor Afghans. People are warm to his anticorruption and antiwarlord message. And Afghans living outside the country -- in Europe, North America, and the Gulf -- have also raised $20,000 for his campaign.

Bashardost comes from the minority Hazara ethnic group, who claim decent from Genghis Khan, and have a history of facing popular discrimination. But Bashardost makes a point of not invoking the narrative of injustices to his ethnic group. And he expresses strong disapproval of those who exploit ethnic and linguistic differences for political ends.

After a recent campaign event in the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan, local resident Muhammad Jan Ibrahimi appeared to have been convinced by Bashardost's message.

"I will vote for a person who does not have tribal, ethnic, linguistic, and religious prejudices," he says. "Who will not make a distinction between the provinces of Afghanistan. Who views all Afghan people -- the Pashtuns, Uzbeks, the Tajiks, and Hazaras -- the same and equally."

Bashardost might not win the election, but some believe his brand of politics could boost Afghan democracy and show Afghans that a political transformation is possible through nonviolent means.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Amir Bahir in Khost, Siddiqullah Siddiqui in Uruzgan, and Ali Irfani in Bamiyan contributed to this report.

Show comments

XS
SM
MD
LG