KABUL, Afghanistan — In the aftermath of the discredited Afghan elections, Western diplomats went to the Arg Palace to call on President Hamid Karzai, the apparent winner, and to a mansion on the west side of town to meet his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah.
They also sought counsel inside a faded tent that's home to Ramazan Bashardost, a French-educated member of parliament who turned in perhaps the most surprising showing of the presidential campaign. He had neither big contributors nor powerful backers, but Bashardost claimed more than 9 percent of the initial vote tally. In a field of more than 30 candidates, it put him third behind former foreign minister Abdullah, who got just under 28 percent, and Karzai, who claimed 56 percent of the vote.
Afghanistan is mired in a political crisis as fraud charges undermine Karzai and a spreading insurgency threatens his government. Only U.S. and NATO military forces and billions of dollars in aid are preventing a reconquest by Taliban, which the U.S. ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks.
The 46-year-old Bashardost has urged U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and his colleagues to find the time, money and aircraft necessary to fully investigate ballot box stuffing. He expects the final results will substantially tighten the race in his favor.
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"Karzai is the king of fraud, and Abdullah is the queen," Bashardost told a visitor. "If (investigators) do a good job, I think that there is a chance that I will take the head of state."
That's highly improbable. Still, Bashardost's attacks on the Afghan political establishment have carried him a long way since he began his campaign earlier this year by barnstorming the country in a Toyota mini-bus.
Bashardost fashioned himself as a post-tribal politician who could unify all Afghans, including Taliban, and touted a 52-point plan to rebuild the country. He traveled without armed guards and boasted that — unlike Karzai — he was able to venture deep into Taliban-controlled provinces, where he'd pitch his tent and mingle with voters.
In the final weeks before the Aug. 20 election, Bashardost rode a wave of positive press that helped draw some $50,000 in campaign donations. Much of it came from expatriates, and he posted the name of each donor on his campaign Web site.
Bashardost gained more momentum as he attacked corruption in the Karzai administration in a televised debate with the incumbent.
"He represented a protest vote that people went to when they didn't like the two leading candidates, and he offered a very different kind of politics," said one Western observer who declined to be named because his position doesn't allow him to comment publicly on the election results.
In an election rife with rigged votes, Bashardost hasn't been above suspicion. Earlier this month, European Union observers who monitor the election say that Bashardost had about 92,000 suspicious votes out of the more than 520,000 he won in the initial tally.
The EU estimates focused on polling sites where more than 90 percent of the vote went to a single candidate. Bashardost scoffs at the notion that he was pulling in fraudulent ballots, saying he lacked the bribe money or government officials willing to falsify his ballots.
"My vote is clean," Bashardost says. "It is absolutely a vote of the people."
During the election, Bashardost did have an advantage with one ethnic voting bloc. He's a Hazara, a central Afghanistan ethnic group whose people traditionally have been persecuted, and suffered several massacres during the Taliban era.
Bashardost's roots are in Kabul, where his father had a small automobile parts shop. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Bashardost made his way to Iran and finally to France. There, he lived for 22 years, earning a doctorate in political science and law as he published a book about Afghan constitutional law.
Returning to Afghanistan in 2003, Bashardost served briefly as Karzai's minister of planning in 2004.
There, he proudly claimed to have angered his ethnic Hazara constituency by rejecting their pressure to stack his bureaucratic appointments with their ethnic bloc. "I said 'I'm a minister of Afghanistan, not Hazarajat," Bashardost said.
By the summer 2004, Bashardost had resigned from the Karzai government to protest corruption and the return of warlords to power.
Inspired by Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park, Bashardost decided to take up residence in a Kabul park, where he initially set up his tent. Elected to parliament, he then moved the tent across the street from the hall where the politicians meet.
The tent has a bare earth floor, and is furnished with a plastic chairs and a small red table adorned with his campaign flag, a white dove set against a green background. Bashardost often sleeps here, although during the recent holy month of Ramadan he would spend the night in his parents' Kabul home.
On a typical day, Bashardost's tent draws plenty of visitors. Women clad in blue burqas sit quietly in a corner waiting for him to help them resolve problems with government officials. Another flustered young woman arrives with a young son suffering from severe diarrhea, and Bashardost takes a break from an interview, writes a letter to a hospital to help her gain entry and gives her money for a taxi.
Other visitors in the tent hope for money because Bashardost is known to give away much of his $2,000 a month parliamentarian's salary.
Such deeds don't impress Bashardost's critics. They say his populist politics wouldn't transfer well to leading a nation, and that the businesspeople who're key to the economy would never accept him.
"If all you do is live in a tent, then what kind of government will you run?" asked Wadir Safi, a law professor at the University of Kabul. "People never believe in the leadership of a poor man in this country, and he has a very secretive personality."
Bashardost maintains that he has no hidden agenda. He wants to be president, and try to lead the nation in a new direction.
"If we build a clean state, without criminal or warlords, without corruption, then it would bring peace," he said.
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times.)
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