KABUL – Oversize posters of President Hamid Karzai blanketed the Afghan capital Tuesday as the two-month presidential campaign began. While Afghans on the street openly complained about Karzai's rule, a new survey showed why he is likely to win a second term: His opponents have almost no support.
The poll found that 31 percent of 3,200 Afghans surveyed said they would vote for Karzai if the Aug. 20 presidential election were held today — a steep decline from the 55 percent of Afghans who voted to give him a five-year term in 2004.
But Karzai is likely to take comfort with the survey's other results: 69 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of him, and 43 percent of likely voters said he deserves a second term.
Most strikingly, only 7 percent of respondents said they would vote for Karzai's closet competitor, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. The next strongest opponent, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, had just 4 percent support.
The poll, based on face-to-face interviews, was conducted in May and funded by the International Republican Institute, a non-governmental organization that receives funding from USAID, the U.S. government aid arm. The poll, which sought to strike a representative sample along ethnic and gender lines, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Campaigning got off to a slow start Tuesday, with Karzai in Russia and Abdullah not appearing in public. But Ghani held a rally under a colorful tent.
"Today it is your responsibility to make a decision about a government for the people, without corruption and without thieves and robbers," Ghani told several hundred supporters.
Taliban militants this month have launched a record number of attacks, and the U.S. and other NATO countries are sending in tens of thousands of extra troops to be tasked in part with helping to protect voters.
Karzai has served as Afghanistan's leader since soon after the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001. But Afghans rail against his government for incompetence and corruption, and against U.S. troops for accidental civilian killings in military operations.
"The last election I voted for Karzai, but later I saw that he was not worth it," Mohammad Shokran, 28, said while standing on a street corner next to campaign posters. "He could not do anything for development or progress for the country. Of all the people who are running for the presidency, Abdullah will be the best."
Still, the new poll showed that 53 percent of respondents said their family's financial situation had improved in the last five years, an indicator of economic progress that is often a key factor in how incumbents fare at the ballot box. Only 20 percent said their finances were worse.
"I will vote for Karzai because I'm sure that among all these candidates he is the most popular with the international community," Rafiullah Shams, 32, said while hanging a poster of Karzai on his Kabul shop window.
"And he was the one who changed life after the Taliban to the democracy we have today," Shams said. "Now there's mobile phones and the Internet. Money flowed into the country. I'm sure in his next term he can attract even more financial support."
Karzai's new campaign manager, Den Mohammad, who resigned from his position as the governor of Kabul province to join the campaign team, said he did not think Karzai's popularity had declined and insinuated that the IRI poll was not impartial.
Key to Karzai's success could be his ability to again win the support of his fellow Pashtun tribespeople in provinces like Nangarhar in the south and east of the country. Pashtuns comprise the largest ethnic group in this diverse nation of about 30 million people.
"This morning there was an event in Nangarhar where thousands of people participated and thousands of people were asking for the President Karzai's posters to take home," Mohammad said at a news conference. "I can assure you that the president has a level of support that no one else has here."
In some campaign posters, Karzai appeared alongside his two vice presidential nominees, one of whom is a former warlord accused of rights abuses — Mohammad Qasim Fahim.
Fahim was a commander in the Northern Alliance — as was rival candidate Abdullah — which helped oust the Taliban in 2001. Fahim is expected to help deliver ethnic Tajik votes from Afghanistan's north, but he has already drawn heavy criticism from rights groups and a top U.N. official.
The Afghan government, the U.N. and the U.S. and NATO militaries are working to provide enough security so Afghans may cast votes. The Pashtun-based Taliban have urged Afghans not to vote and have launched minor attacks on voting registration centers. But Taliban leaders have not said whether they will attempt a large-scale disruption of the vote.
President Obama has made the war in Afghanistan one of his top priorities and has ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to join the fight. The first contingent began fanning out last month across Afghanistan's dangerous south.
The vote will be Afghanistan's second democratic presidential election. The first was seen as a watershed in the country's rebirth after the austere rule of the Taliban, which harbored Osama bin Laden.
During the 2004 election, 18 candidates had 40 days to campaign. This year candidates are allowed 60 days to campaign, until Aug. 18, two days before the election. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held.
Two women are among the 41 candidates, though they are not expected to fare well. Still, Shukria Ahmadi, a teacher, said she would vote for one of them.
"The last time I voted for Karzai, but this time I'll vote for one of the women," she said. "I don't know which one yet."