“Look, it’s really him!” a young woman, swathed in a black scarf, whispered to her seatmate as President Hamid Karzai took to the stage to address the crowd.
Normally, an incumbent president’s appearance at a campaign rally in his own capital, especially one held less than a month before he faced a reelection bid, wouldn’t be any cause for surprise.
But until late last week, Karzai had stayed almost entirely out of the public eye, leaving the campaigning to aides and surrogates.
At the campaign’s outset six weeks ago, Karzai, the country’s leader since the fall of the Taliban, looked as if he was going to leave his rivals in the dust.
Suddenly, though, it’s starting to look like something of a horse race.
Most analysts still believe that Karzai will receive the largest share of votes when Afghans go to the polls Aug. 20. But unless he can garner more than 50%, the race will go to a runoff.
Karzai’s two main competitors, former Cabinet ministers who broke with their onetime boss, have energetically crisscrossed the country in search of votes.
Early last week, they took to the debating stage without Karzai after he bowed out.
And both rivals, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have been hammering away at the theme that it’s time for a change, a message that resonates powerfully with a public disillusioned by the painfully slow pace of reconstruction since the U.S. invasion nearly eight years ago and angry about a pervasive culture of corruption.
Even as the campaign has heated up, the Afghan president has been a strangely reclusive figure. On Friday, Karzai finally made his first appearance at a campaign rally in the capital. Until then, the presidential palace had said he was too busy to campaign.
“A month or six weeks ago, I would have said no,” said John Dempsey, an elections specialist in Kabul with the U.S. Institute of Peace, referring to the chances of a runoff. “But lately, there have been some indications that opposition will coalesce behind a couple of leading candidates. . . . We might see a serious race.”
Because there has been no credible nationwide polling since the start of the campaign last month, the likelihood of that is difficult to gauge.
“There just aren’t any numbers!” said political strategist James Carville, who is advising the Ghani campaign, sounding entirely cheerful about the prospect of flying blind.
“There’s no polling, no focus groups,” Carville, who shot to national prominence as the chief strategist of Bill Clinton’s juggernaut-like 1992 presidential bid, said in a telephone interview from the United States. “It’s kind of refreshing.”
Before the start of the campaign, Obama administration officials were highly critical of Karzai, but the U.S. has adopted a carefully neutral position on the outcome of the vote, voicing hopes only for a free and fair election.
However, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has made a point of reaching out to both Abdullah and Ghani, hosting each for informal meals and discussions at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The embassy says he is in regular contact with Karzai as well.
In late May, a much-cited survey by the International Republican Institute suggested that Karzai’s voter support had dropped below 35%. But it also put backing for Abdullah and Ghani in only the single digits: 7% and 3%, respectively.
Both rivals insist that the tide is turning.
The motorcade of SUVs, bristling with gunmen wearing traditional wool pakol hats despite the summer heat, careered through the streets of the capital, narrowly missing donkey carts and burka-clad women.
The Abdullah campaign was on the move.
Abdullah, trained as an ophthalmologist, is best known outside the country as the face and voice of the Northern Alliance, which joined forces with the United States to help dislodge the Taliban.
Many Afghans regard the movement’s leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, assassinated two days before the Sept. 11 attacks, as a martyr, and Abdullah has taken up his mantle. Massoud’s portraits adorn campaign buses and podiums, and his name is invoked in nearly every speech Abdullah gives.
In daily appearances that have spanned the length and breadth of the country, Abdullah, attired in a fashion-forward version of traditional Afghan dress, has been attract- ing larger and larger crowds. Initially, rallies were fairly small; now the throngs fill stadiums.
In Afghan politics, ethnicity is destiny. Karzai draws much of his support from Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, which makes him extremely hard to beat.
Abdullah is the son of a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother. But his political identity bears the Tajik stamp, and he has struggled to make headway among Pashtuns.
At a recent campaign rally in dusty Paktika province, bordering Pakistan, he delivered part of his stump speech in the Pashto language, but native speakers described his phrasing as rusty and inelegant. Still, his message was a popular one: If elected, he told tribesmen, he would recognize their district, Orgun, as a separate province. Karzai made a similar promise years ago; few in the region have forgotten that pledge has gone unmet.
Abdullah appears to have a keen grasp of the maxim that all politics is local. A week later, at a rally on the campus of Kabul University, he promised students to reform the college-admissions system and guarantee more places at university.
But his most consistent theme is that Karzai has failed in his stewardship of the country.
“Don’t choose the wrong person,” he told the student audience in Kabul, which responded with whistles and applause. “Don’t bring back a government that didn’t do as it promised.”
For a campaign taking place in a country so beset by woes -- war, poverty, stunted development -- this one has yielded little real public disagreement among the main candidates.
None of the three leading contenders, for example, has called for the expulsion of Western troops. Instead, all demand that greater care be taken to avoid harming civilians. And each expresses hope that Afghanistan can one day safeguard its own territory.
For that reason, the Western military powers are heavily invested in ensuring a free and fair vote. Without a legitimate central government, the thinking goes, it could be decades before the nation can sustain itself unsupported by a massive foreign presence.
Violence has surged in the country’s south and east, and the balloting will fall at the height of the summertime “fighting season,” when clashes between Western troops and insurgents tend to peak.
But despite the importance accorded the vote by outside powers, many Afghans fear that the election may prove more of a showpiece than a real turning point for the country.
“Democracy is still a new idea here,” said Farooq Humayoun, a grain merchant. “And sometimes it is easier to just stay with the old ways rather than trying something new.”
Ghani, a former World Bank development specialist who was once touted as a possible candidate to become United Nations secretary-general, looks and sounds every inch the urbane international technocrat. During a recent interview, he was dressed in a natty business suit, his English as perfect as the opulent roses in the garden outside his reception-room window.
When he outlined his 10-year action plan for the country -- economic development, women’s rights, alleviating poverty -- it was not so much a campaign pitch as a polished seminar presentation, perhaps unsurprising for a former professor.
But scarcely an hour later, Ghani was dressed in the traditional outfit of tunic and loose trousers, addressing a gathering of tribal chieftains. He shouted out his message in traditional cadences, laced with puns and poetry, which made his audience guffaw and nod appreciatively.
“I am a product of both worlds,” said Ghani, who spent 24 years in exile before returning to Afghanistan in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban.
“Yes, I have lived in the West, but I have also lived in the villages. I remember the ritual of receiving nomads at my grandfather’s house, the respect with which they were treated,” he said. “I know our culture. I know our traditions.”
He dismisses the pre-campaign polls showing him with only a tiny share of voter support.
“The population considers me a serious contender,” he said. “That is what matters.”
Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez contributed to this report.