Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Ghani Hopes Makeover Leads To Afghan Election Victory

The "new" Ashraf Ghani speaks to supporters during a campaign rally in Kabul on March 9, against a backdrop of himself in conservative garb (center) and his vice-presidential running mates, Abdul Rashid Dostum (left) and Sarwar Danish.
The "new" Ashraf Ghani speaks to supporters during a campaign rally in Kabul on March 9, against a backdrop of himself in conservative garb (center) and his vice-presidential running mates, Abdul Rashid Dostum (left) and Sarwar Danish.

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With just over a month left before Afghans go to the polls to elect a successor to Hamid Karzai, the race is heating up, especially behind the scenes. The Afghan president appears keen to ensure he retains a strong degree of influence even after he relinquishes the formal reins of power.
By Frud Bezhan
Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani has ditched the suit and tie for the traditional Afghan pirhan tumban and turban in an attempt to appeal to voters.

Ghani's complete image and wardrobe makeover appears tailor-made for his election campaign ahead of the April 5 vote and contrasts greatly with the stiff appearance the former finance minister presented during his 2009 campaign.

This time around, Ghani has emerged as a seemingly more compassionate and patriotic candidate. His Western-style dress has been replaced with traditional garb, and he has grown a beard. He is never seen in public without his Islamic prayer beads in hand, and he has adopted his tribal name, Ahmadzai.

There are other noticeable changes. Ghani has reined in his short temper and arrogant manner. He appears humbler and more light-hearted, often sharing jokes with journalists and supporters during election rallies.

Kate Clark, a senior analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, says the changes are intended to broaden Ghani's pool of voters.

In the 2009 election, Ghani put himself forward as a modernist and technocrat. He fared poorly, winning only 3 percent of the vote. While he won the support of youths and women in urban centers like Kabul, he failed to connect with rural voters in the Pashtun-dominated south and east of the country. 

"We've noticed this time that he has embraced his Pashtun and tribal identity," Clark says. "He's hoping that will enable him to reach out to rural Pashtuns because he will present himself as someone who looks, sounds, and acts like one of them."
  • Abdullah Abdullah (center)

    ethnic Tajik

    Vice-presidential running mates: Mohammad Khan (Pashtun) (left in photo), Mohammad Mohaqeq (Hazara) (right in photo)

    Abdullah (born in 1960) is a former foreign minister and qualified eye surgeon. He finished second behind President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 presidential election, with around 30 percent of the vote.

    The Jamiat-e Islami and Hezb-e Islami were deadly rivals during Afghanistan's civil war, but that did not prevent Jamiat-e Islami member Abdullah from adding Hezb-e Islami associate Khan to his ticket.
  • Ashraf Ghani
    Vice-presidential running mates: General Abdul Rashid Dostum (ethnic Uzbek), Sarwar Danish (Hazara)
    Ghani (born in 1949) is a former finance minister and World Bank official who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology.
    The Western-educated technocrat fared poorly in the 2009 election, coming in fourth place with only three percent of the vote
    He raised eyebrows after partnering up with Dostum, a notorious former warlord who has been implicated in numerous human rights violations. 
  • Zalmai Rasul

    Vice-presidential running mates: Ahmad Zia Masud (ethnic Tajik) and Habiba Sarabi (Hazara)
    Rasul (born in 1944), a former foreign minister, is seen by many as the president’s favored candidate.
    He hails from the powerful Mohammadzai tribe in the country's south that has ruled Afghanistan for most of the past century.
    Rasul is a soft-spoken man who has kept a low profile during his time as a presidential adviser and minister.
  • Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (center)
    Vice-presidential running mates: Ismail Khan (ethnic Tajik) (left in photo) and Abdul Wahab Erfan (ethnic Uzbek) (right in photo)
    Sayyaf (born in 1946) is an influential lawmaker from Kabul who is one of the most controversial and conservative of the candidates.
    He is an Egyptian-trained cleric who is credited with bringing leading Al-Qaeda figures -- including former leader Osama bin Laden -- to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
    Sayyaf’s right-hand man, Khan, is the former energy and water minister. Khan, a former Tajik warlord from Herat Province, is referred to as the emir (or king) of western Afghanistan. 
  • Gul Agha Shirzai

    Vice-presidential running mates: Sayed Hossain Alemi Balkhi (Hazara) and Mohammad Hashem Zare (ethnic Uzbek)
    Shirzai (born in 1955) is a former governor of both the Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces. His nickname is "The Bulldozer," reflecting his hard-hitting style and reputation for getting things done.
    During his time as governor of Nangarhar, the former warlord was praised for completing a series of daunting infrastructure projects in record time, eradicating opium production, and curbing militant activity in the province.
    But his record was tarnished by concerns from the international community that he was using his position of power to accumulate personal wealth. He is accused by his opponents of intimidation and extortion.
  • Hedayat Amin Arsala
    Vice-presidential running mates: General Khudaidad (Hazara) and Safia Seddiqi (Pashtun)
    Arsala is a prominent politician and former finance minister who was educated in the United States.
    Arsala (born in 1942), an economist by trade, has teamed up with General Khudaidad, a former minister of counternarcotics. Arsala's other running mate is Safia Seddiqi, a dual Afghan-Canadian citizen who hails from the eastern province of Nangarhar.
  • Qutbuddin Helal
    Vice-presidential running mates: Enayatullah Enayat (ethnic Uzbek) and Muhammad Ali Nabizada (ethnic Tajik)
    Helal is a prominent member of the Hezb-e Islami faction led by notorious jihadist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has been blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist.
    The Hezb-e Islami, currently fighting against international and Afghan security forces, has been accused of some of the worst human-rights abuses that occurred during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s.
  • Daud Sultanzoi


    Vice-presidential running mates: Farid Ahmad Fazli (ethnic Tajik), Kazemia Mohaqeq (Hazara)

    Sultanzoi is a former member of parliament from volatile Ghazni Province. The 60-year-old is a technocrat and seen as a reformer. He has been highly critical of President Karzai and the presence of former warlords in the government. Sultanzoi was the head of the Economics Committee in the lower house of parliament before he resigned to run for the presidency.

    He is a former United Airlines and Ariana Afghan Airline pilot. Sultanzoi, who has relinquished his German citizenship, has adopted two pens as his election symbol.
  • Qayum Karzai -- WITHDRAWN
    Vice-presidential running mates: Wahidullah Shahrani (ethnic Uzbek) and Ibrahim Qasemi (Hazara)
    Qayum Karzai (born in 1957), outgoing President Hamid Karzai's older brother, is a prominent technocrat.
    He is also a businessman and former lawmaker. Interestingly, Qayum has not received the backing of his brother.
    Qayum was to have run with Wahidullah Shahrani, an ethnic Uzbek who has served as minister of mines, and Ibrahim Qasemi, a Hazara and former member of parliament.

    He announced his withdrawal from the race in early March and urged his supporters to vote for Zalmai Rasul.
  • Abdul Rahim Wardak -- WITHDRAWN

    Vice-presidential running mates: Shah Abdul Ahad Afzali (ethnic Tajik) and Sayed Hussain Anwari (Hazara)
    Wardak (born in 1940) is a former minister of defense who most recently served as a security adviser to the president.
    The U.S.-educated Wardak played a key role in rebuilding the Afghanistan National Army but was sacked after a no-confidence vote by parliament in 2012 over alleged security failures.

    During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Wardak led one of the Islamist mujahedin groups fighting the Afghan communist regime and its Soviet backers.

    He gave no reason for his withdrawal from the presidential race in mid-March and did not back any other ca
  • Prince Mohammad Nader Naim -- WITHDRAWN

    Ethnic Pashtun

    Vice-presidential running mates: Taj Mohammad Akbar (Tajik) and Azizullah Puya (Pashtun)

    Naim is the grandson of former King Zaher Shah, who was ousted from power in 1973 and lived in Rome until he returned to Afghanistan in 2002.

    Naim, who returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after two decades in exile, was a close aide to the former monarch, who died in Kabul in 2007.

    He announced his withdrawal at a press conference on March 26 that was attended by candidate Zalmai Rasul, for whom Naim urged his supporters to vote.
The Candidates

Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun from the eastern province of Logar, has always had the qualifications for the highest political office in Afghanistan. He has worked for the World Bank and the United Nations and has even written a book on how to fix failed states.

Attacks Online

But he has lacked the grassroots support of many of his rivals. Ghani's lengthy exile in the United States has earned him a reputation for being out of touch with ordinary Afghans.

So far, the rebooted Ghani seems to be pulling in more support compared to four years ago. Ghani is just behind front-runner Abdullah Abdullah in many opinion polls. The accuracy of such polls, however, is often questioned.

Ghani is one of the few among the 10 remaining candidates to have drawn up detailed policies and is considered to have performed well in televised presidential debates so far.

But not everyone is convinced by the new Ghani.

He has come under a barrage of attacks on online forums in Afghanistan and on social-networking sites Twitter and Facebook over his perceived Western leanings.

Last week, a story was widely shared on Facebook about Ghani's wife, Rula, who is a Lebanese Christian. Some Afghans vented their anger that, should Ghani win the election, Afghanistan would have its first non-Muslim first lady.

That came after several photos were widely shared on Facebook that appear to show Ghani's daughter, Miriam, walking in public without a head scarf.

Waliullah Rahmani, the director of the Kabul-based Center for Strategic Studies, says Ghani has tried to make the election about his vision for the country. But Rahmani says he faces an even bigger task trying to convince voters that he is one of them.

"Ghani's biggest challenge is to change his reputation in Afghanistan," Rahmani says. "He's trying to say his strength lies not in his characteristics or his past but the vision he has for the country."

Ghani's image and wardrobe makeover is part of a larger shift in election strategy.

Ghani is no longer the incorruptible politician who would not join hands with former warlords or engage in behind-the-scenes deal-making. He now appears to have embraced Afghanistan's traditional ethnicity-based political system, built on patronage networks and tribal loyalty.

That was evident when he controversially chose General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious former Uzbek militia leader, as his first-vice-presidential running mate.

Dostum has been implicated in numerous human rights violations, including possible war crimes. In a 2009 story published in "The London Times" newspaper, Ghani called Dostum a "known killer."

Ghani has defended his change of heart, saying his decision reflects the "current realities" in Afghanistan. For his part, Dostum last year made an unprecedented apology for his role in the country's brutal civil war.

Clark says Ghani's choice of Dostum is a contentious choice but it is also the wise choice. She says Ghani will lose some of his core supporters -- youths and women -- and voters from other ethnic groups. But she says Ghani will also secure a large voting bloc.

"He didn't win in 2009; he came nowhere close," Clark says, "so I think he has accepted that in order to become president he has to work with all sorts of political and armed actors in Afghanistan."

Frud Bezhan

Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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