KABUL When Western reporters swing by the tent where Afghan presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost camps out across the street from parliament, they usually write about him as a quixotic no-hoper, maybe a bit mad.
While other Afghan politicians live in guarded compounds, he holds court in his small, cluttered tent, month after month, greeting anyone who comes by with a problem.
Inside, his presidential campaign headquarters is furnished with little more than a plastic picnic table.
Yet through the quirks of Afghanistan's electoral math, and a relentlessly ascetic message that seems to have touched a nerve, the diminutive, French-educated law professor has emerged as a potential spoiler in the August 20 presidential election.
A poll this week puts him third with 9 percent of the vote -- hardly enough to challenge incumbent Hamid Karzai's 45 percent or main challenger Abdullah Abdullah's 25, but enough to cost Karzai an outright majority and force a second round.
The poll predicts Bashardost winning more than twice as many votes as the long-presumed third-place candidate, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, whose lavish campaign staff boasts ex-Clinton administration political guru James Carville.
"There is going to be a political revolution on August 20," Bashardost told Reuters, seated in his tent among stacks of papers and poorly-printed business cards.
Afghans, he says, are smart enough to figure out that none of the country's fancy politicians could have acquired their wealth legitimately in one of the world's poorest countries.
"I do not believe people vote for money," Bashardost says. "People say to me, 'I cannot vote for Abdullah. The price of his tie, it is equal to my ten years' salary!'"
Bashardost set up the rickety yellow tent that made him famous after briefly serving in Karzai's government. He left the cabinet complaining loudly about the fancy cars of fellow ministers and the waste of billions of dollars of Western aid.
NO FREE LUNCH
His campaign is certainly unique.
In a country where bigshots drive big cars in convoys of pickup trucks packed with guntoting bodyguards, Bashardost has a clapped-out minibus that looks older than he does.
Afghan towns are festooned with giant billboards of other candidates, but it is nearly impossible to find a poster of Bashardost. Unlike the other leading candidates, he has no tubs of pilau rice to serve at rallies.
"If I said to people, 'Come, here is a lunch!' in five minutes there would be 10,000 people. They arrive just for tea, just for dinner or lunch, not for Bashardost," he says.
"But the people that arrive in this tent -- without tea, without dinner, without money -- they arrive for an idea, they arrive for a program. Something other than to eat."
Behind his ascetic message there is also a more basic explanation for some of his support. He is the most prominent candidate from his ethnic minority, the Hazara.
In the last election in 2004 a Hazara candidate -- a former guerrilla chief who has since backed Karzai -- also came third with more than 12 percent of the vote. Bashardost insists his support spans ethnic divides, a claim often made in Afghanistan but difficult to verify in a country with little survey data.
If he does place third and forces a second round, the two leading candidates are bound to start calling to ask for his support, perhaps offering government jobs.
But Bashardost says they should forget about it. If he was willing to work with any of them, he wouldn't have run.
"If I found another Afghan politician who really believes in human rights values; an Afghan politician who has never killed an innocent person; an Afghan politician who understands economic matters as a science -- I'd never be a candidate. I'd support him."
(Editing by Andrew Roche)