Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Students Learn Lesson in Politics

Some who thought they would be paid for their work for presidential candidates discover they were actually volunteers.
By Amanullah Nasrat

Mohammad Jalil, a 23-year-old student in the science department of Kabul University, worked as an election observer in his home province of Ghazni for presidential candidate Mohammad Younis Qanuni during last month’s landmark vote.


Under election guidelines for Afghanistan's first direct presidential election, the candidates were allowed to send their own representatives to polling stations to work as observers, so as to ensure fair elections.


For Jalil, there was only one problem: he was never paid for his work.


In interviews with IWPR, Jalil and other students recounted how candidates recruited students to work as election representatives. Many students were led to believe that they would be paid as much as 300 US dollars, a small fortune for one day's work.


After signing up with his favourite candidate, Jalil was referred to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA. Campaign workers were trained for one day by UNAMA, and Jalil was sent to Ghazni province to serve as one of Qanuni's observers.


"I went to a polling station in Ghazni province. I worked there for one day and then returned," Jalil said. "I have still heard nothing about compensation. If I’d known from the beginning that this was the case, I would never have signed up."


Jalil was not the only one complaining.


Abdul Shakoor, 21, a student at the economics department of Kabul University, also claimed he was deceived by Qanuni's campaign. He enrolled in the candidate’s party and was sent to Wardak province, where he also worked for one day as an observer.


"When the election was over, I went to the national party office and asked for money," he said. "And I was told by the director of the office that I should wait until the election results are clear and then I would be paid."


The election results were announced on November 3, and Shakoor has still not received payment.


Campaign officials chalk this up to a misunderstanding. They confirmed that university students were not paid, but said they were volunteers who enrolled as campaign observers out of a sense of service.


Murtaza Hamid, a representative of Qanuni’s party, said, "The students who worked as observers on election day were paid neither by me nor by Qanuni. They were motivated by political conviction, not by money."


A representative of President Hamed Karzai had a similar explanation. Razia Naime, a Karzai campaign official who recruited university students, said she believed those who worked on the campaign were volunteers. According to her, they neither asked for nor were promised money.


"During the training session, when they asked about money, they were told it’s a one-day job and doesn't pay," she said.


Many students claimed they were misled.


Mohammad Sharif, 19, a student in the agriculture department at Kabul University, worked on the Karzai campaign. "We were deceived," he said. "We dropped out of classes for several days, but we were never allowed to work [directly] with candidates."


Complaining that he was "cheated," Sharif added, "Karzai became president through our work, and if I had known, I would have voted for another candidate."


Some people registered as official observers for candidates, but never showed up to work when they learned they wouldn't be paid.


Hidayatullah, 23, a third-year student in the geology department, agreed to work for Qanuni. Asked why he didn't turn up to work as an observer, he said, "I was very excited at the beginning, and ready to work. But when I heard they were not paying, I didn't go to work as an official observer and voted for another candidate instead."


Mohammad Qasim, 22, who studies Russian at Kabul University, also worked for Qanuni. "We voted for him and we persuaded others to vote for him too, but later when we asked for money, they made excuses and told us to come back the next day. And finally I was told ‘no’," he said.


Fazilhaq, a 26-year-old law and political science student, worked for Karzai's election campaign, and is disappointed that he’ll never see the 300 dollars he was promised.


"Now when we speak about money, people laugh at us," he said. "They say that everyone should serve his nation… but the reality is that the money is taken by candidates' representatives and it never reached us."


Ziaurrahman, 22, in the fourth year of journalism school at Kabul University, said he worked for Karzai's campaign, but now he doubts the winner's integrity.


"I wonder whether, when he becomes president, he will give salaries to officials or not," he said.


However, some university students were less than sympathetic to their colleagues.


Mohammad Shafiq, 25, a second-year student on the literature faculty of Kabul University, said, "We should serve our nation and we shouldn't work for money. Even if there was a lot of work, it was only for one day."


Shir Ahmad, 23, a student who worked on Karzai's campaign, agreed.


"We won peace and security in one day after 23 years of fighting in our country," he said. "We shouldn't give importance to money, but should work for our nation, because the nation's future depends on these students."


Amanullah Nasrat is a staff reporter with IWPR in Kabul.


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