As the lead singer of the Afghan rock band Morcha, Masoud Hasanzada has attracted a following in his country with his politically charged lyrics. His group came to prominence with a song satirizing President Hamid Karzai as the “most beautiful man in the world.”
But although he’s politically engaged, Masoud says he’ll not participate in the country’s presidential and provincial elections this Saturday.
Though press coverage has heralded the power of the youth vote — more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s population is 15 to 29 years old — Masoud is one of a growing number of young people who question the validity of an election whose candidates are familiar faces of the political establishment.
He remembers when Mohammad Ismail Khan, who is running as a vice-presidential candidate for the former warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, presided over Herat province, where Masoud lives. Khan required musicians to obtain special licenses as a way of controlling and limiting musical expression, which Masoud said left a lasting impact on the Herat music scene.
Today Khan appears with Sayyaf on campaign posters all over town, and Masoud says very little has changed.
“These candidates are all expired figures, they have no platforms,” he told VICE News.
Some are anti-Soviet jihadi leaders, like Sayyaf, who fought for control of Kabul during the 1990s and later served in Karzai’s government alongside technocrats who make up the remaining candidates.
Menhaj, a 23-year-old from the eastern province of Laghman, told VICE News that he believed that most of the candidates “are better known as murderers.” He decried the lack of new faces in an election that will mark Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power.
“We have many professionals — doctors and engineers — in Laghman,” he said. “But they cannot run because they lack the money and relations.”
Although presidential frontrunners like Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Zalmai Rasoul have repeatedly said that embracing the nation’s youth would be a focus of their potential administrations, young voters who spoke with VICE News remain dubious. To them, the familiar cast of characters calls into question exactly how much of a game changer next week’s polls can truly be for the embattled nation.
Zabiullah, who is 26, said that candidates for office have routinely courted the youth vote in recent years, but rarely follow up on their promises.
“They do nothing for youth,” he said. “They do nothing for anyone. They’re just trying to collect votes.”
Despite several televised debates and high-profile campaign stops across the country, the eight remaining candidates have yet to fully detail their individual platforms.
Masoud said that in the country’s first direct presidential election, in 2004, “people were far ahead of these candidates. They discussed economics, political models — large, heady topics. Today they just talk about the failures of the past 12 years.”
What especially troubles Masoud is the support the three frontrunners have expressed for a bilateral strategic agreement with the Unites States, which would stipulate the conditions for any US forces remaining in Afghanistan beyond 2014. He believes the pact would undermine the nation’s independence.
“Washington can launch attacks against our neighbors from bases on our soil if they feel there is a threat to the US,” he said of the potential arrangement, “but they are not obligated to support us if we are attacked.”
He fears that such stipulations would escalate tensions with Iran and Pakistan and worsen the situation within Afghanistan.
But beyond the limited electoral options, there remains the difficulty of actually voting. The Taliban is waging a violent offensive to keep everyone away from the polls, and simply registering to vote has been a real challenge.
An Afghan girl named Salima recently reached the legal voting age of 18, but because she lives in Logar province — one of the nation’s most dangerous areas — she told VICE News that she is unlikely to cast her first ballot this year. If she could, she would vote for Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Because Ahmadzai is also from Logar, Salima hopes that he would address the province’s instability as president. But Salima’s parents are keeping her from voting.
“My brother has permission, but we girls don’t,” she said. “If I had permission, of course I would vote.”
Sajida, a 21-year-old woman from the eastern province of Laghman, noted the difficulty women have in securing the cards necessary to vote in elections. In November, the Independent Election Commission reported that only 30 percent of the three million voter cards that had been issued went to women.
This news was followed in December by a warning from Raisa Shema, the head of women’s affairs in Logar, who said that the lack of female registration centers would disenfranchise large numbers of women. Meanwhile, only five of the 15 districts in Helmand province are reported to have voting centers that are accessible to women.
Registration difficulties are widespread. Voters in Kabul — both young and old, male and female — have waited hours at a time at three registration centers only to be turned away due to overcrowding.
At 72 years of age, Hedayat Amin Arsala is one of the oldest candidates on the April 5 ballot. He sympathized with the frustrations of voters, but encouraged the country’s youth to not give up on the political system.
“The democratic system is still new for Afghanistan,” he told VICE News. “New faces will come in time, but the ground needs to be set for them.”
Masoud, however, noted that not all democracies are created equal.
“There are two kinds of democracies: grassroots and top-down,” he said. “At the moment, we only have top-down.”
Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye