Kabul, 24 July 2009
Here election fever is in full swing and it’s impossible to avoid. Every street is splattered with fly posters and every avenue now hosts increasingly large billboards with presidential hopefuls looming over the choking traffic, competing for the nation’s attention. Not surprisingly the incumbent Hamid Karzai has the biggest profile. His campaign seems to be based on the number of ways he can look statesman-like and how many types of national costume he can model… and my god the hat shop has done well this week! He’s also gone for the sinister, “Vote for me I am holding a baby” look, with added accessories: a dove of peace and the scales of justice icon.

These little icons are given to every candidate. Let me explain. This is a country with a very high illiteracy rate which means many people cannot read the candidates names. In America, with almost equally tragic levels of illiteracy, but only two major parties, they go for the colour coding system of red for Democrat or blue for Republican. This time round they had the added advantage of ‘the white guy or the black one’. And for the minority of Americans who can read, they offered very simple slogans “yes we can” Vs “we are evil”.

Anyway, excuse the pun, but it’s not so black and white in Afghanistan. There are currently 40 people running for president and without wanting to appear racist, most of them do look very similar; the thousand yard stare, the cheap suit and the facial hair are all de rigueur. So to avoid confusion everyone gets a little symbol, a sort of little logo device to help the public differentiate when they get inside the polling booth. In the interests of fair play these were apparently handed out in the form of a lottery by the Independent Election Commission.

Some of these are very simple; a pen, an apple, a car, a tree. Some though are slightly more bizarre; an axe, a cricket bat and ball, a stethoscope, two yachts. I’m not quite sure who’d want to vote for a man whose symbol is an axe, or if the Kuchi tribal nomads of Badakhshan can relate to a sailing boat. It’s sort of like Monopoly. You always want the racing car and end up with the iron. Weirdly though Karzai seemed to get ‘lucky’ and got the scales of justice. Somehow avoiding the poppy plant, the two sacks of cash or the assault rifle, which might have been a bit more appropriate. His running mate is a notorious warlord, his government is riddled with corruption and he just released five convicted heroin smugglers in what was regarded as a possible exchange for tribal votes.

According to polls Karzai was a slam-dunk to regain the presidency last month, but two candidates are now creeping up on him. They are the Koran and the 3 Water Jugs AKA Abdullah Abdullah (so good they named him twice) and Ashraf Ghani who both appeared live on TV last Thursday for the country’s first ever presidential debate, with Karzai avoiding the Nixon moment by refusing to appear. His reason; “Brothers, first I need to know whether the guy who I’ll be up against and debating with is an Afghan or not? I mean, is he really an Afghan or has he been sent from abroad just to put me under pressure? Is he just some guy who’s kept his foreign passport safe with the US embassy and so he can do a disappearing act if he doesn’t beat me?”

Afghanistan also has its answer to the Monster Raving Loony Party with a number of bizarre candidates such as Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi an ex-Taliban fighter who got his name because he’s handy with an RPG and Dr Ramzan Bashardost, the taxi-drivers’ favourite who gives his MP’s salary away to the poor and sleeps in a tent.

Policies are the usual blend of clichés spouted at random, a bit like Miss Universe contestants, ‘I want an end to poverty and world peace and would love to work with children’. Here it’s all about bringing security, ending corruption, placating the Taliban, reducing poverty, stopping civilian casualties and getting rid of the occupying forces. Not such a tall order really.

And will the elections be fair? Well that’s the $64,000 question. The Independent Electoral Commission seems to have varying ideas about what exactly that means. The most honest comment so far came from U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, “Elections here will be imperfect… but I am an American who lived through an imperfect election eight years ago. I am not going to hold Afghanistan to standards, which even the United States does not achieve.”

Karzai it is then.