Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lisa Bandari: Kabul Blogger - Afghanistan Elections: Final day of campaigning

Lisa Bandari - First Secretary Political Kabul

I, like many of my Afghan colleagues, sat avidly watching the second of the Presidential debates with the leading candidates last night – using my imperfect language skills to try to understand their Dari responses, and watching the body language when they went into Pashto. The incumbent, Hamid Karzai, appearing on a debate for the first time in the campaign, appeared poised and confident, and covered familiar ground. Dr Bashardost, former Planning Minister and parliamentarian, was impassioned with the popular touch, and Dr Ghani, former Finance Minister and World Bank official, outlined detailed policy plans.

As someone who’s worked on Afghan domestic politics and elections for a year, I’ve eagerly awaited these final days. It’s been fascinating to compare campaigning in the UK with campaigning in Afghanistan, where modern campaigning methods have co-existed alongside more traditional methods to get the vote out. Rather than the slick ad campaigns I remember from the UK, more conventional posters of the candidates adorn walls and lampposts, in a variety of outfits to appeal to different demographics.

And with similarities to the US campaign style, the leading candidates have held large rallies for supporters – but offered them free lunches as incentives to turn up. More modern campaign fixtures such as opinion polls have also stimulated debate among Kabul politics watchers, with speculation on whether any candidate will pull off the 50% needed to win on the first round. These are reassuringly familiar to Western diplomats, but need to be treated with caution here, where opinion polls are not established predictors of election success, and where some unknowns still remain for polling day.

I’ve spoken to as many people as I can on how they will make their decisions on Thursday. It seems to me that the results are likely to be determined by a mixture of the old (ethnic, tribal, party political and historical allegiances), and the new, particularly for younger, educated voters (policy platforms and vision). Both come down to individuals, and their communities, making judgements about which candidate will best safeguard their future.

As I work with my colleagues to finalise our own preparations for polling day, including taking part in the EU’s observation mission here, it’s easy for us to forget in the election frenzy that these elections are a stopping point in the country’s wider democratic journey. The engagement and faith of the Afghan people in the process, both for provincial and presidential elections, is as important as the results.

The young men and women who will vote in this election and who make up a huge proportion of the population will be crucial in securing the country on the right path. As someone grateful for the sacrifices British women made to bring us the vote in the UK, I hope they turn out to have their voices heard, and claim their stake in their country’s future.

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