KABUL — When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ran for office in 2014, he campaigned as a no-nonsense reformer in a hurry to modernize an insular, traditional society. Today, he is campaigning for reelection as an avuncular turbaned elder, hugging everyone he meets and invoking the glories of Afghan history.
At a rally in southern Kandahar province last week, Ghani hailed its 18th-century founder and urged the crowd of fellow ethnic Pashtuns to support him, pledging to “bring peace to the hearts and minds of all Afghans” after 18 years of conflict with Taliban insurgents.
Addressing a mostly ethnic Tajik crowd in northern Parwan province Tuesday, he recalled the region’s sacrifices in past wars against the British and Soviet armies, then promised to “give every home electricity” and deliver a “sustainable” and “Islamic” peace if he wins the Sept. 28 election.
This new populist style is part of an electoral strategy that is aimed partly at bringing the aloof and wonky president closer to ordinary Afghans, and partly at bringing together a nation roiled by ethnic and political divisions, in hopes of reviving both the aborted peace process and Ghani’s unfinished ambitions for state-building and economic development.
“We are trying to change the narrative to one of national identity and pride,” said Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Ghani. “You can’t talk over people’s heads.”
Ghani’s critics portray this effort in a darker light. They view it as a ploy to cement his power and revive his stature, at home and abroad, after being sidelined from U.S.-Taliban talks, which have been canceled. Many Afghans wanted the vote postponed until domestic peace negotiations were held, but Ghani insisted that it take place on time. Now, some fear a disputed outcome could plunge the nation into turmoil and strengthen the Taliban’s hand.
The president, however, is already planning for a post-election role as chief interlocutor with the insurgents who have long denounced him as a U.S. puppet. He also hopes that the election will give him a free hand to resume his governing agenda, after five years of a contentious power-sharing arrangement with Abdullah Abdullah, his top rival both in 2014 and in the current contest.
The awkward co-governing pact, with Ghani as head of state and Abdullah as chief executive, was brokered by the Obama administration after the fraud-plagued election collapsed, a recount failed and some groups backing Abdullah threatened violence. Ghani has vowed never to accept such an arrangement again.
“The last time you voted for me, I had one hand tied behind my back,” he told the Kandahar audience. “This time, you must liberate me totally.”
Most observers say Abdullah has little chance of obtaining the 50.1 percent of votes needed to win a first round, and none of the other 16 contenders has campaigned seriously because of violence and uncertainty. Abdullah has held rallies in Kabul and several provinces, attacking Ghani with sometimes bitter barbs and warning that he might steal this election.
“He is a liar, a fraudster and an absconder,” Abdullah charged during a live TV appearance Monday night, which had been planned as a debate between the two rivals. Ghani backed out at the last minute, because of what aides said were suspicions that the event would be stacked against him.
As a result, Abdullah had the stage to himself for 90 minutes, next to an empty podium. He ran through a litany of accusations, including rumors that Ghani had released a bank official, convicted of massive fraud, in exchange for a campaign contribution. Ghani’s top spokesman said the official had been moved to house arrest because of health problems.
Ghani’s supporters say the workaholic technocrat has made strides in many areas during his tenure, including anti-corruption overhauls and agribusiness development. But they say much of the change has been gradual or stymied by opponents, while the public has remained frustrated by the lack of security and jobs.
“In Afghanistan, everything was broken from A to Z,” Faisal said. “It takes time to change things, but we have made progress.” Since Ghani took office, he said, “Afghanistan went from being listed as the most corrupt country in the world to being the eighth-most corrupt. That is progress.”
On Thursday, the State Department dealt a stunning blow to such assertions, announcing that it will cancel a $100 million grant for a large Afghan energy project due to “government corruption and mismanagement.” It also said it will cut support for two of Ghani’s signature programs to overhaul public spending and contracting, because they had not proven sufficiently “transparent” or accountable.
The 70-year-old incumbent has campaigned relentlessly, flying to rallies throughout the country despite the risk of Taliban attacks. Just after Ghani and running mate Amrullah Saleh arrived by army helicopter at the heavily guarded Parwan event, a motorcycle suicide bomber killed 26 people outside the entrance.
Public response to Ghani has seemed enthusiastic, on his home turf and elsewhere. In conservative Kandahar, officials praised him for cracking down on influential “mafia” bosses. The all-male crowd in a sports stadium cheered when Saleh, a former national spy chief, took sly digs at neighboring Pakistan, which many Afghans view as the patron of Taliban predations.
“Mr. Ghani removed the warlords who monopolized power here. If he can’t bring peace, no one can,” said Mohammed Nazir, 26, a car seller. Like several others in the crowd, he criticized the U.S.-Taliban talks as too secretive. “The Taliban must come to the table and talk to Afghans,” he said.
In Parwan, a more liberal northern region, highway billboards lionize anti-Soviet freedom fighters linked to the major opposition party. But thousands flocked to hear Ghani, including many women. Some were covered in burqas; others were students and professionals in stylish dresses who had grown up in democracy and said they were determined to keep it.
“It is important for women to participate in public events and show that we count,” said Alina Latifi, 18, who will be voting for the first time. She said some politicians only want to “get personal benefits” from the war but that she hoped Ghani would end it. “I’m going to listen and think about who will do the best job for peace,” she said.
Ghani’s only extensive, nationwide, election-related comments came in a TV interview last month, before the U.S.-Taliban talks were called off. He said he would not delay the vote under any circumstances and that his role was to “save the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at any cost.”
Since then, his spokesman has said the peace process will be put on hold until after the poll, which the Taliban has denounced as a “fake election” and vowed to disrupt. Afghans hope that the widespread insurgent attacks against October’s parliamentary elections will not be repeated and that turnout among the country’s 9.6 million registered voters will be high enough to produce a credible outcome.
But many are more worried about what comes after.
“No matter whether Ghani or Abdullah wins, the other side will charge fraud and the results will be disputed,” predicted Rangin Spanta, a former Afghan foreign minister. “I don’t think we’ll see chaos break out like in 2014, but we will see a weaker government come to power. That will only hurt the peace process, which the entire nation is demanding.”