For a city without a single dustbin on the streets, Kabul's roads are strangely clean. For a city a day before presidential elections, Kabul is also eerily empty of people - barring security personnel in various uniforms, salwar-kameez-Kalashnikov included. Both are the effects of the capital, one of the safest cities in insurgency-wracked Afghanistan, deciding to live life by one formula before
Election Day: better safe than sorry.
In the Fray
TOP DOG: Hamid Karzai, 51, is the incumbent president. He’s seen as heading a dysfunctional government packed with corrupt players. Despite being a Pasthun himself and having heavy American backing, Pasthuns have grown apathetic towards him.
THE CHALLENGER: Abdullah Abdullah, 49, a doctor, is of Pasthun-Tajik descent who was sacked as Foreign Minister by Karzai in 2006. He wants constitutional reforms. But warlord Abdur Rashid Dostum’s return from exile in Turkey this week and support to Karzai may eat into his Uzbek constituency.
THE OUTSIDER: Ramzan Basherdost, 44, was briefly Karzai’s Planning Minister in 2005 and gained popular support after criticising NGOs and corruption in government. He conducts his office from a tent opposite the Afghan Parliament.
THE DEVELOPER: Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, 60, was Karzai’s Finance Minister till 2004. He was in the bid to become head of the World Bank until he decided to run for the Afghan presidency. A darling of the international community and with credentials as a ‘national builder’, he lacks support from the Afghan electorate.
With two bomb attacks earlier this week in Kabul, election turn-out, which was slated to be low any way, is now almost certain to be even lower. The fact that August 19 is the Afghan Independence Day is only the official explanation. Exactly 90 years after the British lost the third Anglo-Afghan War; good news comes in the form of Anglo-American troops 'recapturing' the Nawzad district of Helmand province in the south from the Taliban.
But it's the bad news that's been more effective: government officials admitting that 26 fighters (some other says 126) from Jalaluddin Hakkani's faction of Taliban-allied insurgents have entered Kabul before elections and that there is little that intense security can do to stop them from carrying out attacks tomorrow. "It'll take one attack at any polling booth for the terrorists to get what they want," says Zani, a journalist from the newspaper, Daily Outlook Afghanistan.
So does this mean Afghans steering clear of polling booths? Ahmed Raouf, a driver originally from Herat working for an international agency in the capital, is practical without answering the question. "A driver sitting ten cars behind a car bomb won't turn off his cassette when there's a blast. They couldn't stop attacks in New York or Mumbai. What chance is there of stopping blasts in Kabul? When a man's time is up, he goes. In the meantime, you don't stop from earning a living, do you?"
Inside the Ahmadzai Snoker (sic) Club, young boys are playing pool while Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle sing in the background. One of them is 28-year-old Mehmood Masoud, who happens to be on a break from his course at a computer graphics institute in Pune. "Pune is a great place, even with the swine flu happening," he says in between taking shots. Mehmood is from Ghazni, near the safer confines of Kabul. But he's staying with old schoolfriends in the capital till the elections are over. "It's not safe in
Ghazni now," he says before launching forth on how Pakistan is responsible for all the mess in Afghanistan. Since late July, 'night letters' from the Taliban have been distributed in mosques and posted on walls in Mehmood's hometown. "The letters say that the Taliban will attack polling stations and kill anyone with a voting mark on their finger," before potting a shot in the far corner.
* Total registered voters: 17.5 million
* Total number of polling booths: 7,000, out of which 500 are likely to be shut for security reasons.
* For an outright win, a candidate will have to get above 51 per cent of the total votes cast. Otherwise, a run-off on October 1 between the top two contenders will decide the next president.
Only a few shops are open. Inside Khalibar Hair Fashion, one wouldn't know that one isn't inside a Karolbagh or a Mahim saloon. Under the protective gaze of Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor on the wall, a political discussion is on. "It's not only the fear of bombs going off that's keeping people away from voting," says Omar Shinwari, a mobile phone shop owner, as he trims his beard (something that, along with barbers and saloons, was banned under Taliban rule). "There's a disenchantment with the candidates that's also making most people stay home. Karzai hasn't been able to stop corruption. And where are the jobs? Where is development that he promised? They're all the same."
The only genuine signs in Kabul that it's election season are the posters plastered on walls. President Hamid Karzai, unsurprisingly, hogs the limelight with billboards showing him in various moods and poses and wearing his trademark 'Afghani' cloak and cap. Top rival and Karzai's former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah is also visible, especially on shopfronts and pillar posts, looking sauve in his tie and suit. Some posters have him alongside the late Ahmed Shah Masood to underline his political origins. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, another 'serious' candidate and former Finance Minister, is buried alongside numerous posters of the 41 contenders in all (including the ex-Taliban Mullah Rockiti named after his prowess as a mujaheddin against the Soviets). There are graffiti scrawled on many of their faces, including a flowery moustache on one of the two women candidates.
Outside the deserted Wazir Akbar Khan mosque, a security guard tells passers-by to move on. "Come back after voting day," he says in broken Urdu. "Mera aaj dar lagtha hai (I'm scared today)," he says with a crooked smile.
Meanwhile, above Kabul, one can clearly see a blimp floating motionlessly in the clear blue sky. "It's for surveillance," explains the man sitting inside a booth marked 'Ching of money' with American dollars and Pakistani rupees pasted on its glass front outside one of Kabul's trendiest Italian restaurants, Boccaccio.
The valley-city of Kabul seems to be tiptoeing its way around before Election Day. Most Kabulis want the spooky siege to end and get back to the routine life of 'normal' security checks and barricades once the polls are over.