July 19th, 2010
08:13 AM ET

Election campaigning in Afghanistan

Editor’s Note: Abbas Daiyar began his blog, Kabul Perspective, last year to look at issues in Kabul and around the world. He has worked with newspapers in Pakistan and reported for news agencies in the past and is now a member of the editorial board of the independent Daily Outlook Afghanistan newspaper in Kabul. The opinions expressed in this guest blog are solely those of Abbas Daiyar.

More than 2,500 candidates are running for the 249 seats of Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament, Wolesi Jirga, elections on September 18. About 400 women, mostly from Kabul and provincial capitals, are also in the race. The campaign is in full bloom in the capital Kabul. The streets are filled with signboards and posters of independent and party-nominated candidates. These posters mostly include slogans about change, poverty, security, development, illiteracy and promotion of justice. The posters and big boards look like resumes of the candidates, listing all their past experience and political background. The lists of their slogans are like whole manifestos.

Abbas Daiyar

A huge majority of the candidates are running independently. Party election culture is not common in Afghanistan. And recently, the Ministry of Justice announced new laws that the 110 registered political parties needed re-registration. The new requirements include that a party needs at least 10,000 members for it to be registered. Thus, most of the ghost parties with no office and supporters vanished. And many could not manage 10,000 members with ID cards to get the registration.

Election culture is new and interesting in Afghanistan. For the mass illiterate population, it’s difficult to choose 249 from among more than 2,500 candidates. In many cases, criteria for preferring a candidate over others ranges from tribal links to votes for sale.

For campaigning, means of communications are different. For common voters, general posters and signboards are used; while for specific people of an area, political background or religious sect, the same candidates use different posters. Politicians also request votes through tribal leaders and Mullahs (religious scholars). People have utmost respect for tribal elders and Mullahs and whomever they “suggest” to vote, people go for him. Most of the candidates in provinces prefer to persuade the tribal chief, and then the entire people of that clan or tribe will cast votes in his favor. In families, elders — mostly fathers — decide for whom to vote. In very conservative areas of the South and Southeast, lower numbers of women come to polling centers on election day. They have almost no role in the decision for whom to vote.

But it’s not just the illiterate population who follow the tribal method of votes. It’s a common phenomenon. For instance, a friend of mine who is a law student at the most prestigious institute of social sciences in Afghanistan — Katib Institute of Higher Education — campaigns for a candidate in Kabul nowadays. He told me how his tribe has decided to send three representatives in parliament from Kabul and six from two provinces of North. They have even counted down the votes and divided different clans to vote for those three candidates so that they get the required number of votes.

A candidate whom I met recently in a printing house had come from Bamyan province. Business is very good at printing houses nowadays. He was in Kabul to buy 200,000 Afghanis worth of cell phone cards for his “campaign workers” who will make phone calls during the campaign period. “Campaign workers” are activists who display posters, go to homes, organize and persuade the voters. Most of them are family members and volunteers from the tribe the candidate belongs. They sit in campaign offices of the candidates and have free lunch and dinners.

In some cases, family members living abroad come to Afghanistan to campaign. One of my friends — a student of international relations at Melbourne University — has come to Kabul to campaign for her uncle. Her father, the elder brother of the candidate, has come to persuade the tribal elders.

Candidates incur heavy expenses during the campaign period. (The campaign started on June 23 and will end on September 16, two days before the election.) Candidates spend huge amounts of money for posters, signboards and other expenses. Unlike the U.S. where candidates receive private financing through fundraising for campaign expenditures, in Afghanistan most of the candidates are on their own. Party nominees get an amount from their party offices and spend on posters and other expenses. During each campaign rally, candidates provide lunch or dinner to supporters. Due to all this, people from middle and lower classes can hardly run in elections.

I was talking to some students of Kabul University last week. They were confused with the huge number of candidates, saying it seems like a race for lottery. They don’t know who to vote for. One of them said, “Even there are candidates in our area whom I have heard about for the first time.” For illiterate people, it’s difficult to remember the election number and symbol of candidates allotted by the Election Commission. Most of the symbols look alike when they are printed on ballot papers. For instance a tree and a flower look similar on ballot paper and most voters get confused with that.

As September 18 gets nearer, the campaign is getting colorful. Already no space is left on junctions and walls of the streets of Kabul – they are already filled with posters and boards. The posters are even on the beautiful newly painted walls of private fancy buildings without prior permission of the owner. Influential candidates who have family members in the government use state resources and places for campaigning. Already the Election Commission of Afghanistan has warned some candidates in this regard. As per the Afghan Electoral Law, government officials, including governors, district heads and other office holders, can not support any candidate during the elections. But it’s common that government officials, including governors, request people to vote for specific candidates.

Election culture is new for the people of Afghanistan, and such practices will prevail for some time on the long journey to democracy in Afghanistan.

More from Abbas Daiyar at his blog Kabul Perspective

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