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Afghanistan goes to the (opinion) polls

Kabul, Afghanistan: In the 12 years since the United States helped oust the Taliban from power, Afghanistan has held two presidential elections. But, with a third one approaching, Afghans are only now getting their first taste of a phenomenon that has been upending conventional wisdom in more established democracies for decades: polling.

Three recently conducted polls are giving Afghans a crash course in a world of front-runners, horse-race coverage and candidates who eagerly dismiss any numbers that do not put them out in front, a spectacle familiar to Americans.

Afghanistan has had four elections - two presidential and two parliamentary - since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. Yet, with the focus on fighting a war and rebuilding the country, there has been little publicly available polling done here.

The early story of the coming presidential vote, in fact, may well be that Afghans are finally finding out which politicians have popular appeal. How the information plays out remains to be seen, but it appears that Afghans - and the Western diplomats who are watching the campaign - would do well to heed an axiom of electoral politics: do not trust the conventional wisdom.

Exhibit A appears to be the ability of President Hamid Karzai to influence the election. The widely held view in Kabul is that whomever Karzai decides to back will be the favourite to win. As the sole elected leader in Afghan history, he is uniquely influential in a country where politics centre on personalities, not political parties. At the same time, he controls the machinery of the state - the police, a growing bureaucracy, even the schools.

Most of the candidates appear to believe they need his support. Of the 11 men running, 10 have sought his blessing and support. Karzai has yet to endorse any of them.

But a poll conducted for the State Department by Glevum Associates, a research company based in Washington, indicates that the ability to influence voters simply by endorsing a candidate may be far more limited than most here believe.

Among the 2148 likely Afghan voters surveyed by Glevum, 85 per cent said they would not be swayed if Karzai decided to endorse a candidate or that it would not matter. The poll's margin of error was about 2 per cent, and was obtained by The New York Times before its release on Sunday.

The poll results did not offer a clear sense of what accounted for Karzai's apparently limited influence. In many respects, those polled seemed to want a candidate much like Karzai: 61 per cent would vote for someone who wanted to open talks with the Taliban, 51 per cent thought it was important to have good relations with Pakistan and 71 per cent wanted positive relations with the United States, as the Afghan leader says he does.

Yet his refusal to sign a deal what would keep US and European troops here beyond next year did not appear entirely unpopular, the poll found. Only 40 per cent of those surveyed said it was important that candidates wanted to keep foreign forces here after 2014.

Nearly 90 per cent said they would not vote for a candidate with a history of corruption. But almost every man running has faced allegations of graft, and the Afghan government is considered among the world's most corrupt.

Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for the President, said neither he nor Karzai had seen the poll. But "these polls are a new experience for Afghans", Faizi said. "People are suspicious about why they are being done, about the possible motivations behind them."

Karzai has no plans to endorse any candidate, Faizi said, adding that the President only wanted to see a peaceful election "that is free of influence from the government - and interference from outside of Afghanistan, as well".

Karzai is particularly fearful of interference from the United States, which he believes tried to unseat him in the 2009 elections. "We are certainly watching for signs of interference from any quarter," Faizi said.

US officials insist that their sole intention is to help Afghanistan, not get involved in its politics. The poll being released on Sunday was intended "to help promote inclusive, credible, and transparent elections in Afghanistan", the US embassy in Kabul said in a statement.

A US diplomat said the survey was the first of nine planned polls conducted by three companies. The United States was paying for polls because most Afghan institutions lacked the wherewithal and the money to do polling themselves.

"We realise it's a new phenomenon, but it is not directed against anyone here, including President Karzai," said the diplomat, who would discuss the thinking behind releasing the poll only on the condition of anonymity.

But Karzai may well have reason to view the poll favourably. It found that the front-runner, with support from 29 per cent of those surveyed, was Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank expert who was most recently one of the President's aides. Ghani is among three candidates Karzai is considering backing, according to Afghans close to him.

In second place was Abdullah Abdullah, a candidate in 2009 and an opposition leader, with 25 per cent. The rest of the candidates all polled under 10 per cent, with three in a statistical tie for third place. They included Zalmay Rassoul, a former foreign minister who was seen as an early leading candidate largely on the belief that he had Karzai's backing.

Ghani's previous run for the presidency, in 2009, yielded about 2 per cent of the vote and earned him a reputation as an out-of-touch technocrat whose constituency consisted largely of Western diplomats.

The two other polls, both of which were released in the past week, put Ghani in second place. The more respected of the two, by Democracy International, a group that promotes democracy, found that 25 per cent of the 2500 people surveyed would vote for Ghani if the election were held the day they were questioned. Abdullah, who ran second in 2009, was out in front with 31 per cent. The margin of error was about 2 per cent, and the poll was conducted through face-to-face interviews.

The Democracy International poll also found that 86 per cent of Afghans surveyed had confidence in Karzai.

The third poll by Tolo News, an Afghan television channel, and ATR Consulting, a research company in Kabul, placed the candidates in roughly the same order as Democracy International. Though Tolo's poll was far less exhaustive - it released only results ranking the candidates - its poll has garnered the most attention in Afghanistan. Tolo is the most-watched network here, and the candidates who placed near the bottom of the pack in its survey were quick to lash out.

"The poll was full of bias in favour of one particular candidate," said Said Hussain Alimi Balkhi, a vice presidential candidate. His running mate, Gul Agha Shirzai, a former warlord and provincial governor, polled in the low single digits in all three surveys.

Balkhi did not specify which candidate he was talking about, but he suggested that Tolo had been paid off - an allegation familiar to Shirzai, who has been accused of corruption and opium trafficking by Afghan and Western officials.

Shirzai is far from the only member of the political elite who stands accused of corruption, and each of the four elections since 2001 have been marred by ballot stuffing and other irregularities.

In Afghanistan, "everyone goes into an election thinking they're the front-runner when they've got 8 per cent of the vote," said Andrew Garfield, the president of Glevum. "It's harder to steal votes when everyone knows how much support you really have."

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