KABUL -- Afghan presidential candidate Zalmai Rasul has a lot going for him.
The 70-year-old is a favorite of President Hamid Karzai. He hails from the most powerful Pashtun tribe in Afghanistan. He claims direct lineage to the former royal family, whose rule many Afghans remember fondly as a golden age. And he is among a handful of ex-government officials whose reputations have not been tainted by corruption.
Still, Rasul faces considerable hurdles to swaying people to vote for him in the April 5 poll, especially in a potential stronghold -- the Pashtun-dominated areas of the country's south and east.
Although he is a Pashtun, Rasul's Pashto is rudimentary, and he is believed to be taking lessons in order to communicate more directly with what is expected to be his core voter base.
The soft-spoken former foreign minister is worldly, having spent most of his life in Kabul or in the West. He is a natural Dari speaker who is also fluent in several European languages, including English, Italian, and French. He received his medical degree in France in the 1970s. Prior to 2001 he served as the director of the secretariat of Zaher Shah, the former Afghan king, in Italy.
But in some ways he is a stranger to the Pashtun heartland, where he has few roots; and the fact that he never married or had children stands out. Such a break from the traditional norm is viewed with great suspicion in Afghanistan, particularly within the highly conservative society he is leaning on for votes.
No Longer Private
Rasul's bachelor status has become a hot topic on the streets of Kabul, with some citizens concluding that the candidate is living in sin.
Abdul Hadi, a resident of Kabul's Bagh-e Ali Mardan neighborhood, says Rasul has not only broken tradition but also failed to fulfill an Islamic duty. Hadi says he initially supported Rasul but changed his mind after finding out that he was unmarried.
"In Islam, a man's faith is only complete when he gets married," Hadi says, "so people see [Rasul] in a bad light. People say, 'You're an old man and you don't have a wife. You must be immoral.' That's what is being said by people."
Hadi claims that similar criticism led Ramazan Bashardost, a former presidential candidate and member of parliament from Kabul, to marry recently at the age of 50.
In Afghanistan, family matters are extremely private and vigorously protected, especially when it comes to female family members. Few Afghans, for example, have seen Zinat Karzai, the wife of President Hamid Karzai who has been dubbed the "invisible" first lady.
During this election campaign, however, candidates have made a habit of smearing their rivals by indirectly bringing up potentially damaging family matters.
Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, has come under criticism from some conservatives and religious circles for being married to a Lebanese Christian.
Abdullah Abdullah made headlines when he divorced his wife, although he has since remarried.
But for Rasul, the only candidate to have a woman as a vice-presidential running mate, his home life could prove to be his electoral undoing.
Pashtun candidate Gul Agha Sherzai said on March 19
that Rasul was "without country or honor," the last dig an apparent reference to Rasul's dishonorable bachelor status.
Voters like Wahid, from Kabul's Shah Shahid neighborhood, appear to agree.
"He's a foreigner and he has no wife or children, so why should we Afghans vote for him?" Wahid asks. "We vote for people who have a wife, children, and have lived in this country."
Rasul has never commented on why he hasn't married. Afghan media have speculated that Rasul has a long-term partner, believed to be a foreigner.
Rasul was considered a weak presidential candidate before Qayum Karzai, a rival candidate and a brother of the outgoing president, dropped out of the race in his favor. Several more candidates, including Prince Nader Nahim, the grandson of the former king, were expected to follow suit and help build support for Rasul.
But some observers now suggest that those candidates have become wary that Rasul's personal life could be an impediment to winning over voters in conservative Afghanistan.
Rasul's supporters, meanwhile, have come to his defense. They say Rasul's private life should not distract voters from his experience and skills as a politician.
Abdul Hakim, one of Rasul's supporters in Kabul, accuses rival candidates and their supporters of trying to score cheap election points.
"[Rasul] being married or not is a private matter," Hakim says. "The government has not passed any law that states that he must be married [to become a candidate]."