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Ascetic ex-minister campaigning out of a tent running third in Afghan election

KABUL - Presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost works out of a tent, eschews meat and refuses bodyguards. With a message of asceticism and charity, he has struck a chord with Afghan voters, disillusioned with candidates tainted by ties to warlords and government corruption.

KABUL - Presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost works out of a tent, eschews meat and refuses bodyguards. With a message of asceticism and charity, he has struck a chord with Afghan voters, disillusioned with candidates tainted by ties to warlords and government corruption.

A recent poll showed Bashardost, a former planning minister, running third among the more than three dozen candidates ahead of Thursday's election, with about 10 per cent support.

While he is very unlikely to win, Bashardost's support could prove critical if no single candidate wins 50 per cent of the vote, and the election goes into a two-way runoff.

Although little-known outside Afghanistan, this 48-year old bachelor has earned a reputation at home for fighting graft and rejecting the trappings of power.

He served, and quit, as a minister under President Hamid Karzai, and is currently a lawmaker for Kabul. Yet he lives in a simple house in a modest neighbourhood - rather than the kind of lavish villa customary for powerful Afghans - and has a frugal lifestyle.

He avoids soft drinks and meat, saying he has given up such luxuries in solidarity with the majority of Afghans who cannot afford them.

"There are lots of needy people around the country and poor people who don't have any bread to eat," Bashardost said during a debate Sunday with front-runner Karzai and fourth place contender Ashraf Ghani.

During the debate, broadcast nationally on government television, Bashardost criticized Karzai for bringing too many former warlords into the government.

"The local people I have talked to, they ask, 'This man who is now our governor is the same man who killed our relatives. Why is he governor now?"' Bashardost said. "All murderers should be kicked out of the government and put on trial."

Bashardost, an ethnic Hazara, was born in Ghazni province to a family of government employees. He left the country during political turmoil in 1978, just before the Soviet invasion that prompted millions to flee. He went to Iran, where he graduated from high school, before moving to Pakistan.

Five years later he went to study in France and earned a doctorate in law from the Social Sciences University of Toulouse. He has never been married and has no children.

He came back to Afghanistan following the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 and worked in the Foreign Ministry, specializing in relations with Europe.

He served briefly as planning minister in Karzai's first administration and was critical of the role played by foreign non-governmental organizations, saying their staff salaries were draining money that should have gone to the Afghan people - a theme with growing resonance in a country where despite billions in aid over the past eight years, most remain mired in poverty.

Bashardost submitted a list of more than 1,900 NGOs, including 260 foreign charities, that he wanted closed due to alleged corruption. The move would have shuttered about 80 per cent of the country's NGOs. When Karzai didn't accept his recommendations, he quit.

After he resigned the post, Bashardost was elected as Kabul's representative in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

Underlining his frugal ways, Bashardost has run his campaign out of a tent pitched in front of Parliament which he has used as his office since being elected to the legislature.

Although he uses a dove of peace as his campaign symbol, he describes himself as a realist and has criticized other candidates for promising negotiations with the Taliban when the militants have given no indication they are open to talks on power-sharing.

"Do you think that Mullah Omar will come and join you and work under you as governor of a province?" he asked a fellow candidate on a recent television news program, referring to the Taliban leader.

The comment so enraged the other candidate, Mohammad Sarwar Ahmadzi, that he grabbed a bottle of water from the table and moved to throw it at Bashardost, but stopped short.

In the Sunday debate, Bashardost promised that he had much more criticism to direct at the government and other candidates, but said he would hold back in the public forum, rather than risk getting pelted.

"I don't want any water bottle fights between us here," he joked.

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Associated Press Writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.

 
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