Getting Out the Vote in Afghan East
Civil society groups in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan have launched a public information campaign to increase voter participation in next year’s presidential election.
The election scheduled for April 2014 will mean a change of leadership for Afghanistan, as the incumbent Hamed Karzai, who has held the post since 2001, is not eligible to run for another term.
With NATO troops due to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year, the selection of a credible head of state is crucial. But those working to encourage voter participation – especially amongst the young – face an uphill battle against widespread cynicism about the democratic process.
Many Afghans complain that the previous two previous presidential elections were marred by fraud, and believe it will not be worth voting next year, either, since the result will be pre-determined.
“Why should we waste our time and take risks? The Taleban threaten us on election day too,” said Zalmai, who lives in the eastern province. “Besides, it’s for the United States and its allies to decide who to bring to power again. Our votes are worth nothing. The ballot boxes are there only to deceive the international community, and that’s it.”
Modaser Wesal, from Kama district, has no intention of voting, either.
“We took part in the past two elections,” he said. “People got killed for that. They had their noses and ears cut off by the Taleban because of it. The result of the elections was that a corrupt system came to power. Bribery, robbery and looting reached a peak, people’s votes and hopes were sacrificed, and 90 per cent of the public regretted using their votes.
“The same thing is going to happen again,” he predicted. “One bunch of thieves will leave and another will come in.”
However, Abdul Basir Sabawoon, head of the Positive Change Association, believes the only way forward for Afghanistan is democratic elections, so it is key to educate people about the importance of voting.
“We are organising conferences for young people in Jalalabad city and inviting university lecturers and civil society activists to speak at them,” he said. “We don’t tell people who to vote for, but we explain the importance of them participating, and their responsibilities to their country and their fellow-citizens.”
Nangarhar resident Hedayatullah Stanikzai said that after he and his friends attended meetings organised by the Positive Change Association, they felt more positive about the electoral process.
“I am now confident that elections are the only solution,” he said, adding that he would not only be voting but he also urging other young people to do the same. “Failing to do so is an act of disloyalty towards oneself and the country. A system established through force of arms cannot serve the people.”
Some activists like Matiullah Ahmadzai, head of the youth affairs department at Nangarhar’s government directorate for information and culture, are travelling further afield to spread their message. So far, he and his friends have travelled to Kabul province, with plans to go to Laghman and Kunar in the near future, despite funding and security problems have restricted their travel in rural areas.
“When we go to any province, our slogan and message are that we must take an active part in the upcoming elections and help elect a sound leadership,” Ahmadzai said, adding that educating young people was vital because they made up the majority of the country’s population. “The future of Afghanistan’s leadership should be built by young people and in accordance with their wishes.”
In Nangarhar, local organisations in areas where travel is dangerous are coordinating their efforts with groups based in the provincial capital Jalalabad.
Sayed Samiullah Sayidi, director of the youth association of Surkh-Rod district in the north of the province, said all their work to educate young people about the electoral process was done on a voluntary basis.
“We have not received financial support from anyone, because [promoting democracy] is a national obligation,” he said, adding that he hoped that young people would act as ambassadors in their own communities, educating people about the elections and encouraging them to go out and vote.
Although officials at the provincial offices of the Independent Election Commission, IEC, declined to comment over the level of public interest in the forthcoming election, they commended the work done by civil society groups.
“This effort by civil society is a very positive and effective thing,” said Rohullah Momand, the IEC’s director of public awareness in Nangarhar. “It is not just the IEC’s responsibility to encourage people to participate in the upcoming elections; it’s also the right of every Afghan to encourage his people, because this is a nationwide process and the whole nation must participate.”
Sayed Khalid Sadat, a political analyst in Nangarhar, said that such grassroots efforts could make an important contribution to changing Afghan society.
“Our people are very disappointed after the past 12 years,” he said. “They are really fed up, but it is the duty of well-informed Afghans to work with the public to give them hope and address their disappointment.”
Sadat said voter education should focus on encouraging people to select candidates for their probity, experience and ability, not their political or ethnic background.
“Afghans need to understand that no one is going to solve their problems unless they themselves heal their country’s pain, and roll up their sleeves to rebuild and bring security,” he added.
Hijratullah Ekhtyar is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nangarhar.