Enthusaistic Afghans are greeting presidential candidates on the campaign trial, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're winning over supporters.
Thousands of supporters mobbed Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as he walked out of his helicopter into the boulder- and dust-choked capital of Afghanistan's poorest province.
Hours later, as the leading challenger to Hamid Karzai for the presidency returned to the choppers, his campaign manager faced a smaller – but clearly frustrated – mob: The local politicians who paid to bus the crowds to the event wanted more money.
"Lots of people came [but] you have to pay for their transportation," explained Dr. Abdullah's manager, Saleh Mohammad Registani, later. He says these campaign events – now a daily feature for presidential aspirants as they head toward an Aug. 20 vote – can cost $70,000 to $100,000 a pop. Many cynical Afghans say a lot of that money ends up in local powerbrokers' pockets.
Afghanistan's presidential campaigns have many of the trappings of a Western-style election, from aerial barnstorming of far-flung cities by candidates and their media entourage, to speeches by local pols warming up crowds for the main act.
But what might appear to be grass-roots enthusiasm for the major campaigns turns out to be mainly Afghan "astroturf" – citizen participation that's contrived and sometimes paid for by local power brokers. That makes predicting the election even harder than normal.
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