NEW WAVE OF HOPEFULS IN AFGHAN ELECTIONS
▶ Record number of candidates under 30 in the mix for ballot
For years Karimullah Jawad had to spend days, or even weeks, at a time in the Afghan capital trying to sort out simple bureaucratic matters. Every task, from getting an ID to a driver’s licence or a passport, required hours of effort.
He was not alone. Corruption is a daily reality for Afghans but Mr Jawad realised that he was luckier than most because he had personal connections.
For others, even basic tasks require paying corrupt officials at every step. In 2016, Integrity Watch estimated that Afghans paid $2.9 billion (Dh10.6bn) in bribes. With 54 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line, each bribe is a heavy cost.
“Every day our work is left undone in the administrative halls of the government,” said Mr Jawad, 30, a native of the eastern province of Nangarhar.
So, when the election authorities announced this year’s parliamentary elections due this month, he saw his chance to bring positive change.
“I want to be a true representative of the people,” Mr Jawad said. “I want to open my doors to the people.”
He will be running for one of the 34 seats in the province of Kabul, where he was born and lived for most of his life.
Mr Jawad’s candidacy represents a potential sea change for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament. During the 2010 elections there were few young candidates.
One exception was Baktash Siawash, who became Afghanistan’s youngest MP in his mid20s. Inspired by him, this year hundreds of men and women under 30 are contesting the 249 seats in the legislature.
The October 20 ballot will be the third parliamentary elections since the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. Security concerns and disagreements over electoral reform have delayed the vote for three years.
The parliamentary polls are also the first since the 2014 presidential election, which was plagued by accusations of government-assisted fraud.
The results were so contested that John Kerry, then US secretary of state, flew to Kabul to call for an audit of every ballot cast in the second round.
That process lasted months because of disputes between Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the top two finishers.
After months of delays, Mr Ghani was declared president and Dr Abdullah was given the new position of chief executive as part of an agreement to form a government of national unity.
These polls will be a major test of the Afghan people’s willingness to vote after yet another election riddled with fraud accusations. It will also be a test of the government’s promises of electoral reforms.
While some of the young candidates represent the old guard – children of warlords and businessmen who made millions since the Taliban were driven from power – many others want to change what they see as a broken system plagued with fraud and bribery.
Critics argue that many of these young candidates are naive and that it will take more than an injection of idealistic youth to change a system of entrenched corruption.
Recognising this, Mr Jawad has contacted eight young candidates from other provinces. “One flower doesn’t bring spring, that’s why it’s so important for us to unite,” he said.
“We know what we are up against but hopefully, if we can maintain unity, we can also challenge the establishment once we get to the parliament.”
Mr Jawad said much of the corruption Afghans faced began with parliamentarians, who were given the responsibility of casting confidence votes for the heads of the nation’s ministries.
“Too many of these MPs sell their votes, and those that don’t take cash ask for favours in return,” he said. “It’s a huge problem.”
The result has been the appointment of unqualified ministers. Last year, seven ministers were sacked in a week.
“From the beginning  we didn’t have order, and things have continued in this way ever since,” Mr Jawad said.
The only way to end this bribery, he says, is to inject fresh blood into parliament.
Javid Faisal spent more than five years as a government spokesman in Kabul and the southern province of Kandahar. Mr Faisal, 26, who is running for parliament in Kandahar, said the people needed real solutions to everyday problems.
He is campaigning on local issues such as proper education, access to clean water and employment opportunities.
“People know what their areas need but they need someone to listen to them,” Mr Faisal said.
But good intentions may not be enough to win a seat in parliament. Voters say corruption is also in the polling process.
Ahmad Popal, a resident of Kabul, said one party offered him 4,500 Afghanis (Dh218) to vote for their candidate.
Other Kabul residents who spoke to The National said would-be candidates bused registering voters to obtain ID cards and voter registration stickers, a processes that would normally take weeks and cost thousands of Afghanis.
“I had to pay more than 6,000 Afghanis to get ID cards for my six children and then all of a sudden there were buses parked outside driving dozens of people,” said Gol Naz, a domestic worker who makes less than $100 a month.
There is also the matter of security. Yesterday, Nafiza Beg, a candidate from the northern province of Takhar, had one of her campaign rallies attacked by a motorcycle bomber. The blast killed at least 12 people and injured dozens more.
Last Tuesday, Saleh Achakzai, a candidate from the southern province of Helmand, was among at least five people killed when his campaign was targeted by a suicide bomber.
On October 2, a suicide bombing in the normally peaceful Kama district of the eastern province of Nangarhar killed at least seven people at an election rally for Nasir Mohmand.
Adding to security fears, the Taliban issued a statement this month vowing to derail the process, calling the polls “completely bogus” and part of “a malicious US conspiracy”.
Recognising these challenges, Democracy for Afghanistan, a project of a local for-profit media consultancy, put out an open call to young, independent candidates offering to advise them on their campaigns.
Within three weeks, they had 700 applicants from the nation’s 34 provinces.
“We noticed that there was so many good, young candidates who lacked the networks and support, so we decided to offer them a base where they can all work together,” said Samira Sayed-Rahman, a junior partner at the company.
But other parliamentary candidates have accused the project of paying candidates to change their politics.
Ms Sayed-Rahman vehemently denies the accusations, saying it did not offer financial assistance to candidates or interfere in political platforms.
“Our only criteria was that they not receive support from outside governments, be affiliated with any warlord or back any form of ethnocentrism,” she said. “Other than that, we have candidates who support the government and others who oppose the government.”
She said their efforts to reinvigorate the parliament with new members instilled fear in the old guard.
“There’s nothing scarier to the status quo than hundreds of dedicated young people.”
Campaign posters for young parliamentary candidates are everywhere in Kabul for the country’s elections on October 20