Happy camper bids for Afghan presidency
Tue, Aug 11, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan - A Ramazan Bashardost is running for president from a saggy yellow tent near parliament in the Afghan capital. He has a manifesto and a mission to wipe out corruption, but not a hope of winning the election.

In his campaign outfit of black waistcoat over traditional white shirt and collar in the Afghan national colours green, red and black, Bashardost is a man of simple pleasures - no luxury and no car, preferring instead to walk.

Over a cup of tea in a haberdashery on the Kabul campaign trail, the popular MP launches into a trademark attack on main contender President Hamid Karzai and his "corrupt, illiterate band".

Bashardost belongs to Afghanistan's fiercely independent minority, the Hazara, who are of Mongolian descent but whose numbers are too small to ever expect to control top office in war-torn and still deeply tribal Afghanistan.

The 48-year-old armed with a battery of degrees from Afghanistan and Europe, calls on the international community to "stop wasting taxpayers' money on the criminals and drug traffickers in power but instead put them on trial".

His answer to the insurgency plaguing the country, claiming record numbers of lives and threatening to overshadow the August 20 election? "The Taliban would certainly put down their weapons if we clean up government".

Bashardost has been back in Kabul nearly five years.

A son of civil servants with a doctorate from France, he lived in various French cities for 19 years, but was determined to repatriate after the US-led invasion ousted the repressive Taliban regime.

He shot to prominence on the political map in 2004 when he left his job as planning minister after a brief nine months in office coloured by diatribes against rampant corruption that made him many enemies.

Cultivating a humble image in a war-torn country that depends on billions of dollars of international aid to stay afloat, he was a year later elected into parliament for Kabul securing the third-most votes for the province.

"To cut down on petrol expenses" he moved into a basic 15-square-metre yellow tent (161-square-foot) that is opposite parliament and where he receives a never-ending stream of constituents and sleeps on an old camp bed surrounded by books.

Despite earning 2,000 dollars a month, Bashardost lives on the cheap. "I use 20 percent for living and distribute 80 percent to poor people, orphans and refugees," he said.

He lives alone and has never married. "You know what women are - they want money to go to restaurants, to buy clothes. But how can I when my compatriots are dying of hunger or don't have a roof over their heads?" he told AFP.

In winter he courts family displeasure by bedding down at his father's house in a modest Kabul neighbourhood.

"My family is not so happy. They say that the family of a former minister, a deputy should have a big house, luxury, bodyguards."

Instead their errant son is running a 20,000-dollar campaign to become Afghan president using funds drummed up mostly from Afghans living abroad.

He claims to have trodden the campaign trail across half the country. While the big spending favourites dish up free meals to thousands of voters, Bashardost flogs posters and DVDs for just a few afghani (US cents).

Karzai and his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, may be reluctant to commit to detailed electoral promises but Bashardost's elaborate, 52-point manifesto does not wash well in the largely illiterate country.

His speeches influenced by US President Barack Obama, tinged with calls for democracy and pleas to overcome ethnic-religious divides are too avant-garde in a conservative, rural country riddled with political-tribal alliances.

"He can cost the favourites Karzai and Abdullah some votes, but he should trail far behind. Some people say he can win five to six percent," said Haroun Mir, an analyst with the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies.

Adds an Afghan journalist observer: "He's well liked but people don't take him seriously. Because he promises an end to corruption, which everyone's swimming in, and because a president should be a sort of king, not a prophet in sandals."

At the end of the day, the sun dipping behind the mountains casts amber rays of light on the tent and Bashardost's face, concentrated on victory.

"We'll win. I predict a landslide. People loathe the political class and I'm clean, I've made so many sacrifices. I'm the only survivor," he said.

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