NEW WAVE OF HOPE­FULS IN AFGHAN ELEC­TIONS

▶ Record num­ber of can­di­dates un­der 30 in the mix for bal­lot

The National - News - - NEWS - ALI LATIFI Kabul

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 [2001] 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.”

AP

Cam­paign posters for young par­lia­men­tary can­di­dates are ev­ery­where in Kabul for the coun­try’s elec­tions on Oc­to­ber 20

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