Election fever grips Afghanistan

By Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan Researcher, @Hmosadiq

I came back from Afghanistan this Tuesday from a three-week research trip that showed me both the best and worst of the country. In the early hours of 20 March, I found myself in Jalalabad listening to the explosions from a Taliban attack on a police station. The next evening, I returned to Kabul only to be greeted by the despicable Taliban attack on Serena Hotel that killed, among others, the AFP journalist Sardar Ahmad and most of his young family.

Election billboard at a bus stop in Kabul © AFP/Getty Images
Election billboard at a bus stop in Kabul © AFP/Getty Images

But I also saw an almost unprecedented sense of hope and enthusiasm ahead of the elections this Saturday, when millions of Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new president.

In the western Herat province, I witnessed a rally of one of the front runners, Dr Ashraf Ghani, along with thousands of others. The eight remaining candidates have criss-crossed the country over the past weeks and received the same enthusiastic welcomes wherever they’ve gone. Interestingly, it’s actually been in some of the most conflict-ridden provinces, such as Paktia, Khost, Helmand and Kunduz, where they have been met by the largest crowds, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands.

The campaigning for this year’s vote has been the most serious I’ve seen in any of the four elections in Afghanistan since 2001. Although arguably short on policy specifics, the candidates have been forced to become more accessible, accountable and open to the public than at any time in the past. To their credit, the candidates’ conduct has set the tone for a professional and respectful campaign.

The Afghan media has played a powerful role. The largest private TV network, ToloTV, has hosted slick televised candidate debates for the first time. The country’s hundreds of print and broadcast outlets have run non-stop election coverage, and journalists have by and large not shied away from asking the tough questions. Afghanistan’s ever-growing social media scene has been filled with nothing but election chatter over the past weeks – I even felt compelled to finally join Twitter myself.

It was also heartening to see how the Afghan youth have taken to the elections. Many are closely following the candidates, listening to and debating their platforms and campaigns, and then taking the discussion onto social media. The sense of optimism is palpable – only in the last few weeks thousands more young Afghans have been queuing up for their voter cards outside electoral registration offices.

Predictably, the Taliban has tried to disrupt the election process. A statement by the group calling for attacks on anyone brave enough to vote has been followed by a wave of shocking attacks that civilians have borne the brunt of, such as on the Election Commission headquarters in Kabul on 29 March. But these have been met with outrage and condemnation from both the candidates and the public at large. The message has been clear – Afghans will not let the threat of violence keep them from determining their future. This morning’s shooting of two western Associated Press journalists in Khost province by an Afghan police officer is the latest jarring reminder of that threat.

For sure, there are plenty of challenges ahead. Today, Amnesty International released a scorecard on the Karzai government’s performance on key human rights issues. Despite some undoubted achievements, much of it makes for grim reading – the new administration must take human rights seriously and not treat it as a second-string issue.

There are also questions about the record of several of the candidates themselves. Many stand accused of serious human rights abuses during Afghanistan’s decades of conflict and, if elected, may be in a position to influence the process by which they may be brought to justice. Accountability is crucial for any post-conflict society – senior government officials must also be held accountable for their bloody pasts.

But despite the challenges ahead, Afghans themselves have come together to show their country at its best over the past weeks. I spoke to Haji Gul Agha, a community leader in Nangarhar province, who said: “The more the Taliban try to intimidate us with violence, the more determined we are to show them that we are not afraid”. The sense of hope in Afghanistan is very real – let us all help make sure that it is not in vain.