Young Afghans hold key to 2014 elections

Politicians say outcome will be shaped by generation which grew up after country’s epic wars

December 16, 2013 03:35 am | Updated 09:42 am IST - KABUL:

Matin Bek was a child when his father went to war, fighting against the triumphant Taliban armies that swept across Afghanistan, sweeping aside resistance. He recalls, as if it was yesterday, playing in the midst of grim counsels of war, fleeing into Iran, visiting hospitals filled with amputation-victims from his warlord-father’s forces. He remembers the triumph that followed 9/11, and his father’s assassination by a jihadist suicide bomber.

He says this, too: “Young people are fighting for a new Afghanistan, not waging the wars of the past.”

The front-runners in the looming 2013 elections — among them former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah; President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Abdul Qayyum Karzai; patriarch of the Islamist resistance against the Soviet Union, Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf; the eminent scholar and diplomat Ashraf Ghani — were all intimately enmeshed in the great historical events that tore apart Afghanistan from the mid-1970s to 9/11.

For the most part, though, all the candidates acknowledge the shots will be called by voters who were children when these events unfolded — and seem them not as epic battles to be celebrated, but as nightmares to be forgotten.

Says vice-presidential candidate Muhammad Noor Akbari : “The other day a diplomat asked me who the important tribal elders in my region were. I told him that the really important leaders are kids in their twenties.”

The youth factor

Little credible demographic data is available on electoral behaviour in Afghanistan — all the more so because the 2009 elections were marred by widespread fraud. However, experts estimate that 70 per cent of the population is 25 or below. Half of all voters who turn out in the bitter April cold, several politicians The Hindu spoke to said, would likely be 30.

Youth participation, politicians say, has driven high voter registration, especially in urban centres, which some say now account for half the country’s population. Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission says over 3.3 million people have so far registered to vote — suggesting final participation will far exceed the 4.4 million who turned out in the 2010 parliamentary elections.

Mr. Akbari, who is fighting as part of Mr. Karzai’s slate, hopes to draw numbers of ethnic Hazara voters, a historically underprivileged group, adding to his running-mate’s appeal among ethnic-Pashtuns around Kandahar, in Afghanistan’s south.

He believes, however, that old, formulaic notions that voters will split neatly along ethnic and regional lines are misplaced. “I meet hundreds of young Hazaras every day,” he says. “They do not talk about where to get Kalashnikovs and rockets. They talk about jobs and education.”

Mr. Bek, Afghanistan’s New Delhi-educated Deputy Minister at the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, also says development is the key concern of young people in Afghanistan. “I’ve been reading a lot about the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party in The Hindu ,” says Mr. Bek. “It seems to me that young voters in Afghanistan also want change. The thing is to manage that change wisely; to ensure what is new is not seen by our elders as a threat.”

Education biggest challenge

Education has emerged as a core concern among young people. Says Kandahar Governor Toryalai Weesa: “Frankly, this is the biggest challenge. In decades of war, we lost the basic knowledge that a society relies and now, we have a proliferation of private-sector schools and universities, but standards are mostly low. This is the biggest single challenge before us, not the Taliban.”

India is among the countries assisting in this process of reconstruction. New Delhi now offers over 1,000 scholarships to meritorious college students while the eminent agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan’s efforts have helped give birth to a new agricultural university in Kandahar, in the midst of lands ravaged by war.

This doesn’t, of course, as if ethnic and tribal considerations have disappeared from Afghanistan’s landscape. Dr. Abdullah’s own prospects centre around ethnicity: many in Afghanistan see him, though of mixed heritage, as a Tajik leader, and wonder if the country is ready to elect a leader from the ethnic minorities. Leaders like Mr. Akbari have been picked, mainly, for ethnic considerations.

Yet, at least some politicians seem to think the country is transforming.

Mr. Akbari remembers his college days at Kabul University, under Communist rule, with nostalgia. “I had three room-mates,” he says, “who are all still close friends. I don’t know, to this day, what their ethnicities are, or whether they were Shia or Sunni.”

“I’d like to think the country could be like that, again.”

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