A record number of candidates under 30 are contesting the forthcoming parliamentary elections
Youth wave challenges Afghan elections
For years, Karimullah Jawad had to spend days, even weeks, at a time, crisscrossing the neighbourhoods of the Afghan capital trying to sort out simple bureaucratic matters. Every task, from obtaining an ID to a driver’s license to a passport required hours of effort.
He wasn’t alone. Corruption is a daily reality for Afghans. But Mr Jawad realised that he was luckier than most because he had personal connections to assist him.
For others, even basic tasks require paying corrupt officials at every step. In 2016, Integrity Watch estimated that Afghans paid nearly $2.9 billion in bribes. With at least 54 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line, each bribe can be a heavy cost to the average Afghan.
“Everyday, our work is left undone in the administrative halls of the government,” said the 30-year-old native of the eastern province of Nangarhar.
So, when the national election authorities announced this year’s parliamentary elections — slated for later this month — Mr Jawad saw it as his chance to finally bring positive change.
“I want to be a true representative of the people. I want to open my doors to the people, rather than shut them out,” he said of his motivation for running for one of the 34 seats reserved for the province of Kabul, where he was born and lived for the majority of his life.
Mr Jawad’s candidacy represents a potential sea change for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament. During the 2010 parliamentary polls, young people like Mr Jawad were a rarity among candidates. One exception was Baktash Siawash, who became Afghanistan's youngest MP in his mid-20s. Inspired in part by his success, hundreds of men and women under the age of 30 are this year 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 political disagreements over electoral reform have delayed the vote for over three years. The parliamentary polls are also the first since 2014’s presidential election, which was plagued by accusations of widespread government-assisted fraud. The election results were so contested that John Kerry, US Secretary of State at the time, had to fly to Kabul and call for an audit of every ballot cast in the second round runoff. That process extended for months due to disputes between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the top two finishers. After months of delays, and two visits by Mr Kerry, Ghani was declared president and Abdullah was given the new position of Chief Executive as part of an agreement to form a government of national unity.
As such, these polls will be a major test of the Afghan people’s willingness to head back to the polls after yet another election riddled with accusations of fraud. It will also be a test of the unity government’s promises of electoral reform and efforts to combat fraud.
While some of the young candidates represent the old guard — children of warlords and businessmen who made millions over the 17 years since the Taliban were driven from power — many others want to change what they see as a rotting, broken system plagued with accusations of endemic corruption, 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 and cronyism. Recognising this criticism, Mr Jawad has already reached out to eight young candidates from several other provinces.
“One flower doesn’t bring spring, that’s why it’s so important for us to unite. We know what we are going up against, but hopefully, if we can maintain that unity we can also challenge the establishment once we get to the parliament.”
Mr Jawad says much of the corruption Afghans face begin with parliamentarians, who are given the responsibility of casting confidence votes for the heads of the nation’s ministries.
“Too many of these MPs are selling their votes, and those that don’t take cash ask for favours in return. They say: ‘I will vote for you if you send this person to that office.’ It’s a huge problem.”
The result has been the appointment of unqualified ministers. Last year, seven ministers were sacked in a single week. For Mr Jawad and other young parliamentary hopefuls, this trend represents a startling irony, where ministers are often dismissed by the very legislators who voted them into office.
“From the very beginning , we didn’t have order, and things have continued in this way ever since,” said Mr Jawad.
The only way to end this culture of bribery and corruption, Mr Jawad says, is to inject fresh blood into the parliament.
Javid Faisal, who spent more than five years as a government spokesman in Kabul and the southern province of Kandahar, agrees. Mr Faisal, who is running for parliament in his native Kandahar province, says what the people need are real solutions to everyday problems.
The 26-year-old is campaigning on local issues— proper education, access to clean water and employment opportunities — but hoping that his youth gives his familiar message a fresh ring. “People know what their own areas need, but they just need someone to listen to them,” he says.
Good intentions like these may not be sufficient to secure a seat in parliament however. Afghan voters say corruption is endemic to the voting process.
Ahmad Popal, a resident of Kabul, said one campaign offered him 4,500 Afghanis (Dh218) to vote for their candidate.
Other Kabul residents who spoke to The National said would-be candidates bussed registering voters to obtain ID cards and voter registration stickers, laborious processes that would normally take weeks and cost thousands of Afghanis. “I had to pay more than six thousand Afghanis [$78] 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.
On Saturday, Nafiza Beg, a candidate from the northern province of Takhar had one of her campaign rallies attacked by a motorcycle bomber. The blast left at least 12 people dead and dozens more injured.
Last Tuesday, Saleh Mohammad Achakzai, a parliamentary candidate from the southern province of Helmand, was among at least five people killed when his campaign was targeted by a suicide bomber. The attack on Mr Achakzai’s campaign was the second attack on a parliamentary candidate in a week.
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 target the election process. The group called the polls as “completely bogus” and part of “a malicious American conspiracy.”
Recognising these challenges, Democracy for Afghanistan, a project of a local for-profit media consulting company, put out an open call to young, independent candidates, offering to advise them on their campaigns.
Within three weeks, they had 700 applicants from each of the nation’s 34 provinces.
Samira Sayed-Rahman, a junior partner at the firm, said the programme was part of their corporate social responsibility efforts.
“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,” Ms Sayed-Rahman said.
However, the programme has not been without its critics. Other parliamentary candidates have accused the project of paying candidates.
Ms Sayed-Rahman vehemently denies the accusations, saying they don’t offer financial assistance to candidates, nor do they they interfere in any candidate’s political platforms.
“Our only criteria was that they not receive support from outside governments, be affiliated with any warlords or back any form of ethnocentrism, other than that, we have candidates who support the government, others who oppose the government.”
Ms Sayed-Rahman believes their efforts to re-invigorate the parliament with new faces has instilled fear with the old guard, who are trying to stage a political attack against the project.
“There’s nothing scarier to the status quo than hundreds of dedicated young people,” says Ms Sayed-Rahman.