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Tea, Soup, Sweets -- And A Little Bakshish -- Crucial To Afghan Campaigning

Mohammad Ahmadi (left) speaks to Ghulam, a local vegetable seller, at a campaign rally for Zalmai Rasul in Kabul on March 29.
Mohammad Ahmadi (left) speaks to Ghulam, a local vegetable seller, at a campaign rally for Zalmai Rasul in Kabul on March 29.
KABUL -- A group of battle-hardened veterans, many of them permanently disabled or disfigured, slowly find their seats inside Mohammad Ahmadi’s makeshift campaign office atop a barber shop in Kabul.

Ahmadi, an election campaigner, is hosting the group of 12 influential former combatants in a bid to secure their support for presidential candidate Zalmai Rasul, one of the favorites to win the April 5 poll. With just days left until voting day, hundreds of local campaigners like Ahmadi are making last-ditch attempts to win over voters in their neighborhoods.

Ahmadi, the head of campaigning in the Afghan capital’s Bagh-e-Ali Mardan neighborhood, swiftly serves tea and sweets to his guests. He then patiently explains why the men, many of them former mujahedin fighters who fought against the Soviet Union and later the Taliban, should vote for Rasul, a soft-spoken former foreign minister who spent decades in exile and who has never married and has no children, a break from traditional norms.

"Zalmai Rasul doesn't have dual citizenship from another country. He's been living in Afghanistan for years," Ahmadi says. "He [hasn't fought, but he] has waged jihad with his pen and words. He's done a lot of work. His accomplishments as foreign minister are there for all to see."

The men seem unconvinced.
Mohammad Ahmadi's makeshift campaign office atop a barber shop in Kabul
Mohammad Ahmadi's makeshift campaign office atop a barber shop in Kabul

Jawed, a 45-year-old former Northern Alliance fighter, stands up on his one leg and addresses the group. He angrily accuses Rasul of being a "foreigner" who has not served his country.

Many of the other men nod in agreement.

Ahmadi spends the next hour answering questions and fending off criticism.

"Why are you working for Rasul?" demands Rahimullah, a bearded 65-year-old war veteran.

"Where's Rasul's family?" inquires Aman, Rahimullah's 30-year-old son.

"Is he supported by the Americans?" asks Farid, a veteran who lost his left arm in fighting.

"Is he a Muslim?" demand several others.

The group does not seem won over.

Ahmadi -- on the defensive -- tries to diffuse the tension. He orders lunch, one of the most important aspects of such campaign gatherings. Bread and meat soup is promptly served, after which the customary biscuits and sweets are handed out, accompanied by green tea.

The men's moods change dramatically.

"Most of the time when we organize a gathering, if we don't give them food and don't provide their lunch, most of them will leave," Ahmadi says. "They say, 'You're wasting my time,’ and they don’t even listen to what you have to say."

An hour later, the veterans leave, warmly shaking hands with Ahmadi and promising him they and their families will vote for Rasul.

Spending Habit

Ahmadi says he has organized around 30 campaign gatherings with different constituents in his community since official campaigning began in early February. Ahmadi has met with a group of shopkeepers, a union of fruit and vegetable sellers, and a group of money exchangers in the neighborhood, among others.

During each meeting, he has provided lunch or dinner to his guests. Ahmadi, who is reimbursed for all campaign-related expenses, says he spends nearly $200 a day -- a significant amount in Afghanistan -- on meals and on transporting his guests to and from his office.
Guests of the campaign meeting are served shurwa, Afghan soup with meat and vegetables that's eaten with bread.
Guests of the campaign meeting are served shurwa, Afghan soup with meat and vegetables that's eaten with bread.

It's the same with many election rallies organized for other presidential candidates around the country.

Food and transportation are among the biggest expenses for the candidates. Campaigners hire dozens of buses to transport people to and from large rallies. Meals and refreshments are nearly always provided for the tens of thousands of people who often attend.

Ahmadi, who would not reveal his salary, says there must be financial incentives for Afghans to campaign, attend rallies, and vote for candidates. Allegiance is not free in Afghanistan, he says, and every Afghan, he says, has his or her price.

Ahmadi says that this sometimes means provincial and presidential candidates must hand out cash or other "gifts" to potential voters, as well as local religious and tribal leaders. But he denies ever buying locals off in exchange for their votes.

"In Afghanistan, when people vote, they don't consider a candidate's characteristics or qualifications," Ahmadi says. "People here are very poor. Even for presidential candidates, if they don’t pay people, then they won't get their support. For example, if a candidate tells a voter, 'I will give you $50,' that person will vote for him without question."

No Time To Waste

Once a week, Ahmadi and his team of 10 fellow campaigners attend Friday Prayers at one of the many small mosques dotted around Kabul. After the prayers end, Ahmadi addresses the hundreds of faithful in attendance. But that privilege also comes at a price. He says he pays the local mullah a small amount of cash. In return, the mullah will either address the crowd himself in support of Rasul or give the floor to Ahmadi.

Ahmadi's campaign team has also plastered several thousand posters of Rasul around the neighborhood -- on streetside walls, in shops, and in restaurants. More so than in the West, such posters play an important role in boosting the face and name recognition of candidates in Afghanistan, where it's often difficult to reach voters through traditional television ads, newspapers, or personal appearances.

Ahmadi estimates that he has so far put up some 5,000 posters around his neighborhood and the surrounding areas. He says his team puts up the posters during the middle of the night, when he says they can more easily escape harassment from rival campaigners and security personnel.

If they are stopped by the Afghan police or soldiers, he says, they often have to pay "bakshish," or a bribe, to be allowed to continue their work.

When Ahmadi is not hosting members of the community in his makeshift campaign office, he is out campaigning on the streets. On this day, he visits a butcher shop, a local food market, and a barber shop, promoting his candidate, sharing jokes, and drinking tea.

When the sun sets, he finally goes home, physically exhausted and mentally drained.

The next day, Ahmadi will hit the campaign trail again. There will be more meetings, lunches and dinners, and more promises of votes.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.