When he's not canvassing the Afghan backcountry in his beat-up Toyota mini-bus, Ramazan Bashardost, 48, arrives at his presidential campaign headquarters a gray tent at 5:30 each morning. It sits across the street from the Afghan parliament and is open to the public, without the gun-wielding bodyguards that surround other high-profile candidates. "My name means 'friend of humans'," he offers, by way of explanation. "I am here for everyone."
The ethnic Hazara member of parliament has made a name for himself in recent months with a non-stop, everyman campaign by car, bicycle and on foot that has spanned 24 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. In a country where ethnic fault lines are steeped in bloodshed, Bashardost is trying to bridge the divide by appealing to common grievances such as corruption, insecurity and a lack of basic services. His trademark black vest features an embroidered white dove of peace. But he talks tough about President Hamid Karzai and self-serving warlords he says have betrayed the Afghan public through their criminal dealings, and, in doing so, given the Taliban a "second chance."
Another plank of his agenda is an end to the political horsetrading that continues to undermine Afghan institutions. In the run-up to elections, Karzai heavy-handedly co-opted potential rivals with promises of ministerial posts and even the redrawing of provincial borders in favor of minority ethnic groups. His leading challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, has been accused of giving jobs to fellow Tajiks while serving as foreign minister.
Bashardost believes that mounting disgust with warlord-dominated patronage networks has led Afghans to begin to shift away from traditional ethnic-tribal politics toward issues of substance like jobs and education. He says that the fact that he has never fought in a war or joined a faction makes him more appealing to disillusioned voters. "You can't find another candidate who thinks about all the national interests of the Afghan people more than Ramazan Bashardost," he says, lapsing into the third-person as is his habit. Few, however, share his assessment of the way Afghan politics works.
His critique of Karzai and the warlords is matched by a loud disdain for foreign aid agencies that have spent billions of dollars in reconstruction contracts with lackluster results. As planning minister in 2004, Bashardost called for non-governmental organizations to be expelled (he would resign from the job out of frustration). Today, Bashardost insists he's not against them all, just the "no-good guys" who waste money on bogus projects while parading around in expensive sport utility vehicles. Still, he estimates the cash-guzzling NGOs to be about 90% of the total based in the country. "So I am the candidate of the American taxpayer," he says, "not just the Afghan people."
No one questions his frugality. Bashardost, never married, sometimes sleeps on a rickety bed by his tent and fields calls on a cracked cell phone. He distributes most of his $2,000 monthly government salary to the poor, he says. And his campaign, funded by donations and Afghans living abroad, has cost less than $25,000 so far. (Other sources of funds: posters and promotional DVDs sold to supporters for twenty cents each.) "Bashardost has campaigned very effectively, traveling around the country, reaching out to the poor as a populist on a bicycle," says Haroun Mir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies. "But no one believes he could ever be elected."
Although critics have long written him off as an eccentric destined to stay at the fringe, Bashardost appears to have struck a chord. With less than a week until Afghans go to the polls to vote for only the second time to choose a president, a pair of recent polls showed he had alternately 8% or 10% of voters surveyed last month, placing him third behind president Hamid Karzai and his rival, Abdullah, and ahead of Ashraf Ghani, the brainy former finance minister.
Bashardost rejects the numbers, and may be alone in thinking he can still win. His campaign is unrelenting. As the sun crept over the mountains to the east of the city, he and a small entourage headed for the airport to catch a free flight on an Afghan Army plane to Herat, in western Afghanistan, for another day on the road.
Jason Motlagh's travel to Afghanistan and South Asia was funded by the nonprofit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.