By ADAM B. ELLICK
Published: June 19, 2009
RAMAZAN BASHARDOST’S election campaign seems better suited for a student government race than a drive for the presidency of Afghanistan. Each day, dozens of volunteers visit his headquarters, a dust-blown tent on a dirt road, eager to hear his anticorruption platform.
The 47-year-old scribbles down their contact details — he has collected about 3,000 names— and asks them to purchase his election poster for 10 cents. They comply with remarkable obedience.
In most places, such grassroots antics from a lone-wolf idealist would be stuff of the fringe. But in a sign of just how disenchanted some Afghans have become with their government, Mr. Bashardost, a doctoral scholar who lived in France for two decades, is widely believed to be at least fourth in popularity among 42 candidates in the August elections.
A radical independent, Mr. Bashardost has a calming monk-like demeanor that contrasts sharply with his accusatory politics. He has lashed out against the Communists for allowing the Soviet invasion— the subject of his dissertation. He has called for war crime tribunals against jihadist leaders of the 1990s.
Lately, he has vociferously attacked corruption among the technocrats, including President Hamid Karzai, who have ruled Afghanistan since 2001, and whom he dubs “orphans of Bush” and “the Taliban with neckties.”
It is rhetoric that has prevented him from receiving any public endorsements, but, if nothing else, guarantees him the urban protest vote.
Some speculate that Mr. Bashardost, a former planning minister and current member of Parliament, would be worth millions of dollars if he had swapped his principles for the political mainstream.
“In my gut, I’d like to have a palace, girls and luxuries,” he said. “But when I see the poverty here, I don’t want it.”
After publicly rejecting perks that President Karzai granted to other ministers, like land plots and $60,000 cars, Mr. Bashardost is a modern-day Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who crusaded against corruption by living in a tub, and who roamed the streets in daylight with a lamp in search of an honest man.
The closest thing Mr. Bashardost has to a home is a dented 1991 Suzuki compact car that cost him $1,500. In the summer, he sleeps beside the tent in a barren room with plastic-covered windows. In the winter, he lives with his parents, despite tensions.
“My parents don’t like me,” he said. “They want a luxurious life because their son is a former minister. They don’t believe an honest man can change the lives of Afghans.”
Mr. Bashardost, who is quick to quote Gandhi, has never been married and claims to have no friends except for “25 million ordinary Afghans.”
“You can’t be Bashardost, and have a girlfriend,” he said in a whisper among some supporters. “I give my money to the people, but girls want to go to restaurants and bars, and they want you to come home early from work.”
Surrounded by admirers inside his tent, and without any security — he has refused government bodyguards — Mr. Bashardost defended his archaic campaign in French-accented English.
“If I didn’t believe I could win, I wouldn’t run,” he said. “For what? Just for this photo,” he said, pointing to an election poster.
In a nation fractured by ethnic tension, Mr. Bashardost brands himself a pluralist, a natural outgrowth of his childhood, he said, when he lived all over the country because of his father’s nomadic job as a government agricultural official.
Born in Ghazni Province in central Afghanistan, Mr. Bashardost fled the country in 1978 as the Soviets invaded, first to Iran, where he finished high school, and later to Pakistan. In 1983, he sought asylum in France, where he earned three master’s degrees and a doctorate in political science at the University of Toulouse in 1995.
WHEN the Taliban were ousted in 2001, Mr. Bashardost took a diplomatic post at the Afghan Embassy in Paris, and in 2003 returned home to head the European Affairs Department at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
As planning minister, Mr. Bashardost became a media darling when he donated his salary to pay for the lunches of his employees, who earned $60 a month.
A year later, in another anticorruption move with populist appeal, he tried to expel nearly 2,000 international aid organizations from Afghanistan, accusing them of cronyism.
The controversy annoyed the Western-backed Mr. Karzai, and Mr. Bashardost soon resigned.
In 2005, after winning the third-highest vote total among nearly 400 parliamentary candidates, he created the Tent of Nations as a protest against the inaccessibility of government.
The poorest constituents, those who cannot afford the obligatory bribes to attain government services, come to the tent as a last resort. One recent day Mr. Bashardost promised to bestir the Ministry of Higher Education on behalf of a student who was unable to secure a dorm room at a state university.
“Those clerks respect my signature, so they’ll cooperate,” he said.
By most accounts, Mr. Karzai is the favorite in the election, as Afghans tend to vote along ethnic lines and Mr. Karzai is from the majority Pashtun group. Mr. Bashardost is a Hazara, the nation’s third-largest minority with 15 percent of the population.
But in a nation without a census, and where security remains uncertain, election analysts here said that Mr. Bashardost’s best hope was to play a Ralph Nader-like spoiler role in a contest that would go to a runoff if no candidate won more than half the vote, an outcome Mr. Karzai dreads.
Once colleagues, Mr. Karzai and Mr. Bashardost now seem almost to be opposites. The president’s elegant robes, capped with a grey karakul hat, stand in sharp contrast to Mr. Bashardost’s schoolboy image: his campaign posters show him cradling stacks of notebooks.
“It’s the evidence that in seven years, after $31 billion, we still have nothing,” he said, referring to the amount of foreign investment poured into the country.
While Mr. Bashardost mobilizes his humble supporters, he is unlikely to draw on what is considered an essential ingredient in any victory here, the tribal networks. That would require money to pay for the votes, which he does not have, and compromising his principles, which he is unwilling to do.
On a recent afternoon, visitors ranged from a European Union diplomat to an Afghan schoolteacher who traveled 48 hours by bus to volunteer.
The teacher, Mohammad Haidar, walked away with a plastic bag full of business cards, posters and CDs — and a hasty tutorial on campaigning: get out the vote in large venues like mosques and wedding halls; listen patiently to critics; avoid yelling.
“His hands aren’t red with the people’s blood,” Mr. Haidar, 27, said. “We’ve suffered enough.”
THE campaign runs on $20,000, mostly donations from diaspora Afghans. All contributors are listed on Mr. Bashardost’s Web site.
Critics cast him as more of a moralist than a leader with ideas of his own. Commentators refer to him as genuine but slightly insane, as evidenced by his rants that end far removed from where they began. As a result, his policy prescriptions are murky.
When asked how he would defeat the Taliban, he said the militants are not fighting the Americans but a domestic war from the 1990s. The Americans, he said, should fret less about security and more over their billions of tax dollars that have landed in the pockets of Afghan politicians.
Mr. Bashardost, who spent his childhood buried in books, says he realized while he was in school in France that his ambitions would dictate that he lead a hermit’s existence.
“There are very nice girls in France,” he said. “They fell in love with me, but I told them I’m from a country with 10,000 problems and it will only interest you for one month.”
A version of this article appeared in print on June 20, 2009, on page A6 of the New York edition.