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Afghan Youth Elections: Ethnic Differences Cloud Presidential Run-off

Voters in the northern Afghan province of Balkh have expressed concern that the second round of the country's presidential election is increasingly being fought along ethnic lines.

Panellists at an IWPR debate held on May 27 claimed that the campaigns of the two remaining contenders were focusing heavily on ethnic heritage and historical loyalties in a last-ditch bid to garner support.

Abdullah Abdullah, who gained 45 per cent of the vote in the first round held on April 5, is identified with Tajik parts of northern Afghanistan. His rival, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who secured 31.6 per cent, comes from an influential family of Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic community.

"Through their verbal attacks on one another, and by discussing ethnic and religious issues, the candidates have polluted the political atmosphere," Fazel Rahman Fekrat, a civil society activist, told students attending the event in Mazar-e Sharif. "Some [voters] have demonstrated a distrust of the Independent Election Commission; others have complained of interference by government employees and now doubt the transparency of the process. All these factors have come together to diminish peoples' interest in participating in the second round."

Another panellist, Laili Habib, a journalism lecturer at Balkh University, said told the debate that the tone and urgency of campaigning had undoubtedly changed as election day, June 14, approached.

She said she held media networks partly accountable for the heightened focus on ethnicity, and urged them to act more responsibly.

"The candidates' behaviour has certainly become more ethnic in focus," she told undergraduates. "This has spread to the media, with many programmes choosing to report on ethnic dimensions of the campaign. They pay little attention to the candidates' policies. The media need to be more responsible about this. They should produce programmes that do not inflame ethnic issues, but instead provide the public with a clear picture of the candidates' platforms."

Jawad, a student attending the event, asked panellists how Afghanistan could move towards a sense of national unity and reduce ethnic rivalries.

Fekrat replied that both the two candidates as well as voters themselves must try to foster better understanding among the many distinct groups that make up the country. Discrimination and marginalisation would only lead to instability, he warned.

"Our ability to coexist must come from the top down," he said. "It must be initiated by the state and then implemented by the people. When every individual in our society is included within the framework of citizenship, the issue of ethnicity will no longer be relevant."

Ahmad Ahadi, deputy regional head of the Independent Election Commission, expressed optimism that turnout would be high in the second round.

"We have received more than 100 requests from village leaders and tribal elders asking for the number of polling centres to be increased in their areas," he said. "This indicates that peoples' interest in the second round is high."

Sakhi Dad Mahdiyar is a student at Balkh University and an IWPR trainee.

This report was produced as part of Open Minds: Speaking Up, Reaching Out – Promoting University and Youth Participation in Afghan Elections, an IWPR initiative funded by the US embassy in Kabul.

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