The Spirit of the Political Rally

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2004

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Young Afghans attend political rallies in Kabul the week before the presidential vote.

KABUL, Afghanistan, Oct. 5 -- Just as on the American campaign trail, the large rally held for Yonus Qanooni at the national stadium in Kabul Tuesday was mostly a lot of waiting. But unlike American political rallies, the crowd waiting for the arrival of the most serious challenger to President Hamid Karzai wasn't particularly bored. This is a country bristling with young people, and the crowd was filled with boys and very young men. They milled around, held hands, jostled each other, and generally carried on with the exuberance of kids cutting class. But it was hard to get a fix on how many had come to support the candidate who once was the spokesman of the Northern Alliance, and how many had come because it was just something to do.

The phalanx of muscular adolescents wearing Qanooni T-shirts, doing a minimal form of crowd control, would seem to belong to the former category, but no, one of them says he was already on hand for martial arts practice, and then volunteered to act as a human police barricade.

"I haven't decided yet," said Mehrab-u-Dine Wafa, 22, wearing karate pants and belt, when asked about who he would vote for on Saturday. He said it a bit sheepishly. Around him, the crowd was growing more and more animated in chants anticipating the arrival of their favorite. But Wafa had other things on his mind.

"My passion is karate," he said. "It is a strong sport."

As the campaign enters its final days, the indifference of people like Wafa is yielding to more focus, more energy, and perhaps more uncertainty about the outcome. The Qanooni event came late in a campaign that has had few big spectacles, and that will see most public campaigning end when a 48-hour ban on electioneering takes effect on Thursday. But now there have been a flurry of happenings. On Monday, at a mosque on the outskirts of Kabul, hundreds gather to support Mohammad Mohaqiq, the Hazara candidate -- representing an ethnic group that suffers from particularly low social status within Afghan society. That rally was also brimming with young men. Although fear for his safety has made him seem elusive, Karzai held a rally in Ghazni Tuesday and was apparently planning another event in Kabul.

Despite a surge in political activity, as the campaign intensifies, you don't get the sense that basic issues are being sorted out, fundamental decisions made, or views of the future weighed in the balance. People describe their favorites in bland terms, but with visceral conviction. Often, it seems influenced more by a decision to try to stand with the winner rather than pick someone they actually want to win.

A man who gives his name as Fraidoon, 18, says he's considering voting for Qanooni, Karzai and Abdul Latif Pedram. After hearing Pedram on television, he favors him. But if it looks like Pedram can't win -- and it certainly looks that way -- he'll shift to Qanooni. And if things look bad for Qanooni, he might go with Karzai. In a country with no real polling, how will Fraidoon know which way to vote, if he wants to vote with a winner?

"I will look around," he says. "I will ask people."

And yet, Fraidoon can't be accused of simply following the lead of others. He has listened to the speeches, read about the contenders, discussed them, and is attending a Qanooni rally to get a sense of the man.

Those who have definitely made up their minds about a candidate tend to speak in boilerplate certainties. "He's a good man." And, "He's honest." And "We want him to be president." One man, who identified himself as Qais, 18, an aspiring teacher, explained his support for Qanooni this way: "He's a mujaheddin, and he's a good man." Those two things pretty much explain the strong appeal of Qanooni. He has the bona fides of a resistance leader, during Afghanistan's long struggle against the Soviet Union; but he was also the former education minister under Karzai, and he is seen as a thoughtful, responsible character.

"In school, we didn't have chairs, now we have chairs," said Qais, after some prodding. More chairs is a relatively rare example of a specific claim about a candidate. It is also a sign that Qanooni's time as education minister was well-spent, proving his competence and building support.

As Qais talks about the improvements in education in his village, under Qanooni's leadership, the announcer chastises the crowd: The youth are making too much noise; only people with banners are to stand in the front; boys must stay on the grass. A few of the boys move toward the stubbly, short grass field in the center of a stadium where the Taliban once held public executions. Most ignore the directive.

With the arrival of Qanooni, crowd control begins to break down, although not among the women seated demurely on cement bleachers. They are arranged in color coded ranks, one section filled with women in the traditional full length, face-covering blue robes, another with teachers dressed in black, another for school girls with white headscarves. When Qanooni first appears, they all turn, in one motion, to see the candidate come out to the podium. They have to turn because they are sitting directly in front of Qanooni, where they can't see him; but they make a lovely foreground for his speech.

While the women move quietly to get a glimpse of the candidate, the men go wild and rush the fences protecting the area where Qanooni is speaking. Some of them scale the fence and jump to the other side, and for a moment there's a full-scale stampede.

All of this for a speech that suggests little about Qanooni's appeal. He reads a verse from the Koran and then greets the youth of Afghanistan. He cites the importance of the country's first, free election. He calls it historic. He condemns the violence that has marred the campaign. He calls for the people to choose a better future, with unity, rebuilding and prosperity. He calls for defending women's rights, and the rights of those who have been disabled, a significant number in this war-torn country.

But by far the lines that go over best with the crowd are the references to the mujaheddin. Qanooni's campaign has played to perhaps the most complex and elemental emotional thread of Afghan political life. It is difficult to separate feelings for the men who resisted the Soviets from basic Afghan patriotism. But it's hard to make an argument that the mujaheddin, tarnished by infighting and human rights abuses, represent the future. And yet Qanooni has apparently managed to smooth over this dilemma, tapping the old, fighting fervor, while speaking in the reassuring platitudes of rebuilding, good government, and unity.

One leaves impressed, and a bit disturbed, at how quickly the basic, sophisticated language of implicit politics has formed here. Qanooni's speech is cautious, sensible, forward looking. And his audience, a field full of young men, are fired up by an unspoken understanding that Qanooni is a link to the fighting past. He doesn't have to egg them on. The entire rally is charged by an energy that comes from what is not said. Which is one reason that even if these elections go smoothly, and the Afghan people come to some, workable agreement about a new president, there's no certainty whether democracy will lead forward to a more stable political future, or back to some darker place all too familiar.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company