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Abdullah campaign king in Afghan vote hunt

world Updated: Aug 02, 2009 08:03 IST
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As criticism mounts against Afghan President Hamid Karzai for failing to reach out to ordinary voters, his main rival has been crowned king of the campaign trail for the August 20 election.

Dressed in a traditional cream shirt and Western-style leather jacket, ex-foreign minister Abdullah is back in the northeast mountains where he earned a reputation as a fearless member of the anti-Soviet resistance.

"Everybody in the country has decided to get rid of this corrupt government," shouts Abdullah's campaign manager Wakhef Hakimi, warming up the crowd in the northeastern town of Faizabad to the Karzai-bashing theme.

"Karzai turned a golden opportunity into disaster. There's no point giving him five more years," Abdullah himself tells the crowd.

Swinging through four villages within 24 hours, the eye doctor gives voters exactly what they want -- conservative rhetoric laced with memories of jihad against the Soviets and resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Observers say Abdullah has done more than any of the other 41 presidential candidates to tap into voters' growing dissatisfaction with those who have led poverty-stricken, war-torn Afghanistan for the past eight years.

"Abdullah in my opinion has turned into a serious rival to Karzai, his popularity is widening," says Fahim Dashty, chief editor of the Kabul Weekly, one of few independent newspapers in Afghanistan.

That is an easy task in northeast Badakhshan province, where the "doctor" is revered for having been close to the late Massoud and for travelling snow-capped peaks on horseback to save wounded guerrillas two decades ago.

Leaving aside much of the south inflamed by the Taliban insurgency, Abdullah has flown west and east, playing on his mixed Tajik and Pashtun heritage, depending on his audience in this ethnically riven country.

"He's reached out to big communities in areas where ordinary people have never seen the president face to face. I think he reaches communities more than any other candidate," said Dashty.

Abdullah and his running mates -- a diplomat and a surgeon -- have branded themselves as a new generation, which wants to loosen warlords' grip on power, ease corruption and weaken damaging alliances that thwart democratic reform.

Karzai is tipped to win the election but analysts say Abdullah is probably the only candidate capable of forcing him into a run-off, by depriving the president of a minimum 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

But neither Abdullah nor his team always gets a warm reception. Last week, insurgents opened fire at an Abdullah rally.

Less than 24 hours later, one of his campaign managers was shot dead in an ambush, also in the east. Abdullah was not present on either occasion.

In Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan, his campaign website claimed a turnout of 20,000 but an AFP reporter put this closer to 2,000.

Since being dropped from the cabinet in 2006, Abdullah has worked for the Massoud Foundation charity and has emerged as a trenchant critic of the government as he seeks to distance himself from Karzai and highlight his democratic credentials.

"I was foreign minister and a successful one," he told AFP on the sidelines of his northeast campaign.

"I helped the recognition of Afghanistan by promoting policy and getting international support. I left the government three years ago. Then, the situation was not that bad," he added.

In the overwhelmingly Tajik lands of the north, he does not waste time on political and economic promises. His basic argument comes down to the fact that Karzai, a Pashtun from the south, looks after his own at the expense of Tajiks.

"Give me power and I'll give it back to you!" is his rallying cry, which seems to strike a chord.

"Karzai never gave us anything. With Abdullah, we'll get more positions in cabinet!" says Jumah Khan, a 50-year-old voter.

After lunch under apricot trees, the Badakhshan campaign climaxes in the village of Jurm, where tribal elders welcome Abdullah as a prophet.

He performs a walkabout as if starring in a Hollywood Western, with more than 1,000 over-excited supporters thronging in his wake, decked out in tribal dress, fatigues and football strips.

"We will finish this government. We will finish corruption," he shouts, stabbing the air with an accusatory finger, hailed by jubilant cries of "Allah Akhbar!"