MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Poor Afghans seeking to change an otherwise bleak future are turning to soothsayers, but the fortune tellers have not had much luck gazing into the murky world of politics.
Afghanistan's "jughi," or fortune tellers, make their living on society's fringe and are popular among the poor, especially in the country's remote, mountainous north.
On the eve of Afghanistan's presidential elections, few were prepared to call the result between President Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun from the south, or his main rival Abdullah Abdullah, whose support base is among Tajiks in the north.
To many of the poor in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, it mattered little who will win.
"Whether it's Karzai or Abdullah, so what? Neither will help us," said a woman, who gave her name as Goljan, as she breastfed her 1-year-old son held on her hip.
Some of the jughi were at least diplomatic about the result.
"I can tell you: your future will be very good, will be big," said soothsayer Goltash.
"But I don't know about this election, I have no idea who to vote for -- it's really up to God."
Polls show Karzai with a comfortable lead, but not by enough to avoid a second round run-off against Abdullah, a former foreign minister.
Goltash estimates her age at 77 and lives in grinding poverty among a cluster of makeshift homes made from shorn tree trunks and hand-sewn, vibrantly colored patchwork canopies on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif.
"I don't know who the candidates are," said her 59-year-old husband Sher Mohammad, wearing in a worn-out, quilted tunic of white and blue a pale turban.
"We have nothing. We have no land. We just want land, help, a home. When we die, we don't have even anywhere to bury our dead."
The women are the main breadwinners in their ramshackle settlement, making money by begging and from telling fortunes.
Neighbors each pulled out voter registration cards to show they had the right to take part in the poll. The cards were tattered and dog-eared and dated from the first round of registration for Afghanistan's first direct election in 2004.
In the city center by the turquoise shrine of Imam Ali, one of Afghanistan's holiest Muslim sites, several soothsayers competed for business predicting the fortunes of pilgrims.
Only one was prepared to make a prediction about the poll.
"I see Abdullah ... his cards are in my pocket," said Khan Ahmad.
But more earthly forces may be working against Abdullah in northern Afghanistan.
A former Uzbek militia leader, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, returned from exile to his northern power base Sunday and threw his support behind Karzai at a massive rally the next day.
"Dostum is a leader, he's someone with power ... his return will have an effect," said Sayed Mahmood, a 28-year-old pilgrim at the shrine. "But (the election) is an uncut melon, so nothing is yet clear," he said.
Editing by Paul Tait