Afghanistan Election: Woman Candidate Braves Retaliation With Presidential Run

Of all the things I might like to do in the second half of 2009, standing in the Afghanistan Presidential elections and taking on the Taliban, rampant corruption and the world's biggest drug cartels would be pretty low on my list. But then, I could never figure out why Benazir Bhutto had such a death wish either.

Forty candidates have now been confirmed for the election, which will be held on August 20. The official campaign period began this week with press conferences, posters and undeliverable promises littering the country.

I have discussed the front running candidates before - but recent International Republican Institute polling indicates that 31% of Afghans intend to vote for Hamid Karzai - leaving him a long way in front of Dr Ashraf Ghani - a favorite with middle class liberal Afghans. (See my previous post on Dr Ghani here).

One of the bravest candidates is Shahla Atta, a 47 year old university graduate who is currently an MP for Kabul. While sharing with other candidates an almost identical shopping list of election promises - judicious use foreign aid, compulsory basic education, defeat of the Taliban, justice and rule of law, economic accountability, corruption busting - Ms Atta distinguishes herself by her courage alone. One of only two female candidates - the other if Frozan Fana - she has no chance of success. (A 2004 female Presidential candidate attracted 1.1% of the vote).

In a country where little girls are attacked with acid for going to school, she has a very good chance of inspiring hatred and a notion of revenge that might end in her being killed. That's a high price to pay for standing in an election you have no chance of winning.

"The people have tested men, but they did not get anything. Now, why not see what a woman can do? I know I can do it, I am strong," she said recently.

Ms Atta's campaign posters feature assassinated President Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan whose policies Ms Atta says she will emulate. (SDK was an anti-fundematelaist reformer, who nevertheless ran a repressive regime. He was assassinated in 1978).

Candidates who throw their hat in the ring with little chance of success, are regarded warily in Afghanistan, where the tall poppy syndrome (excuse the pun) is alive and well. People who seem to be seeking fame through the ballot box are called gomnaam, a dismissive term which broadly translated means "unimportant".

Why anyone would wish to be gomnaam and an assassination target at the same time - as Ms Shahla Atta surely is in the eyes of many Afghans - may confuse those who don't live in a basket case. But perhaps, like suicide bombers, those Presidential candidates believe that really, nothing more can be lost and that to go in - and out - fighting is the only option left.