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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.
Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani has ditched the suit and tie for the traditional Afghan shalwar kameez 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."
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."