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Inside the tent of an honest man

Zuhra Bahman meets the likeable – and unlikely – man who would be Afghanistan’s next president. He’s considered honest, unpretentious and the country’s Ralph Nader.

There are 44 candidates in the upcoming Afghan presidential elections. The list, published last week by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, includes: people who were part of the pro-Soviet Afghan Communist regime of the 1970s and 1980s; people were active in the 1990s Afghan civil war; ex-Taliban member Mullah Rocketi; and several disillusioned members of the current government.

The list is long but it could have been longer had certain others – including charmless ex-Minister of Interior Jalali or chameleon ex-Minister of Finance Ahadi or the semi-literate Governor of Jalalabad, Gul Agha Sherzoi – gone ahead with nominating themselves. There was a collective sigh of relief when these names didn’t make it to the list!

Three on the list do have a real chance: the incumbent President Karzai, former Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah and former Finance Minister Dr Ghani. The rest, with miniscule chances of winning, are using their candidacy to promote themselves in anticipation of getting a ministerial position in the new government or to raise awareness of certain policy issues.

Of the no-chancers there’s one who is attracting attention: Ramazan Bashardost, Afghanistan’s answer to Ralph Nader (in the photo above, with myself). Last week I saw his website. It consists of campaign material in a variety of languages aimed at showing him above the ethnic divisions in the country, a range of his educational certificates to show his transparency and competency, and a variety of statements, one-liners and press-releases showcasing his campaign platform.

Bashardost has built a reputation as a staunch idealist who resigned from his ministerial position in the Karzai government. He is popular with ordinary Afghans – he won a parliamentary seat with the second highest number of votes cast for an Afghan MP. Most important, he’s known as an eccentric who travels on a bike with no security, votes against almost any decision that comes to Parliament and receives his guests in a tent.

Intrigued, I called the number on his website. He answered the phone himself and invited me to see him in his tent on Friday before the prayers. I wasn’t sure why I was meeting him; I have already made up my mind who I’m voting for.
I took a taxi to his tent. I wasn’t sure how to give the address to the driver so I just asked him if he knew where the Bashardost tent was. He not only knew about the tent but he was all ready to vote for Bashardost ‘because he is the only one that seems honest; the rest are all thieves’.

In contrast to the heavily guarded Afghan Parliament building across the road, Bashardost’s tent had no guards. The interior was adorned with handmade colourful posters urging people to register to vote – and then vote for Bashardost. I arrived early and sitting on a plastic chair, surveyed his campaign posters. They showed a dove –signifying peace; hands shaking – signifying friendship; a plate of rice – signifying prosperity. And there were a few words from the Quran to show the candidate’s beliefs.

At 10 o’clock sharp Bashardost enters the tent. He’s a slim man, dressed in lightweight, white Afghan cloths that seem to have seen more than their share of washes. He is carrying a pile of folders, notebooks and a diary. He extends his hand towards me and starts talking.

He is not eccentric, I conclude, after listening to him for a few minutes. What he says is what most Afghans want. He says that the US is in Afghanistan due to self interest, but that, he says, is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s up to Afghans to ensure that they use the attention they are getting from the international community for their own benefit.

He says that the Taliban are not fighting the US for ideological reasons, they are fighting because the US Government has put war criminals in charge of the country. He calls upon the Western public to question their governments’ decision to pay the expenses of these war criminals which, Bashardost says, include an army of bodyguards and the living expenses of the warlords’ many wives.

I agree with him. He talks about the origins of democracy, quotes Abraham Lincoln, and talks about human rights violations in Afghanistan. While we are talking a group of Pashtun, and then Uzbek, men arrive. They sit, listening attentively. They seem tribal. I ask where they come from. They are from Faryab. Bashardost says that inside his tent there is a peaceful Afghanistan where all ethnic groups are one. People walking past the tent, on the road, look at us.

Bashardost takes us and shows us his parliamentary office. It’s five minutes drive from his tent. We drive in his old 1991-model car. I, the only woman, sit in front and Bashardost squeezes between my friends at the back. En route, he tells us that he chose his two deputies because of their honesty and dedication; one is a university lecturer and the other a female human rights commissioner.

We spend a few minutes in his office, where he gives us some campaign literature and lets us take pictures with him. He gives us a lift back and gets out of the car to say goodbye to us. Unlike every other Afghan politician he feels secure and has no bodyguards. He says people of Afghanistan ensure his safety and he has never received any threats.

I leave impressed by his honesty, generosity of spirit and solidarity for the poor of the country. But deep down I know he will not win. The reason why he will not win is because Afghans will not vote for one of their own; they will vote for one they can look up to, they will vote for a king not a messiah.

I hope that whoever wins the election takes a few minutes to ponder why some people chose to vote for Bashardost.

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