In the weeks leading up to the second round of Afghanistan’s presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai — the top two finishers in the initial April 5 poll — spent much of their time wooing the nation’s political and religious establishment.
But as campaigning finishes ahead of the June 14 run-off, both candidates have turned their attention to the majority of the nation’s population: the youth.
Though many young Afghans remain dubious about an election lacking in new faces, both candidates acknowledge that the youth vote could be the key to their success. An estimated 68 percent of the country’s population is under 25 years old.
Ghani’s strongest overture to young voters came on Sunday night when he fielded questions at a standing room town hall at Kabul’s French-language Esteqlal high school, which he had attended. Addressing raucous supporters who exceeded the auditorium’s capacity of 300, Ghani credited his engagement with the country’s youth with making “an old man feel young again.” He referred to the crowd as representatives of the “national unity” his campaign hopes to foster in Afghanistan.
He encouraged the audience of mostly young men to continue the strides the country had made since the outbreak of war in 2001. Using the nation’s athletic accomplishments as an example — Afghanistan won bronze medals in the last two Summer Olympics and its first international soccer trophy last year — Ghani said that its young citizens had “accomplished things no one could have believed possible” only a decade earlier.
The audience cheered and shouted “God is great!” as Ghani responded to their questions about education, visa issues, the economy, and the status of women.
When an audience member asked him about increasing rates of violence against women, Ghani answered that “anyone who even dares to inflict the least amount of physical harm on an Afghan woman will have has hand chopped off!” This declaration elicited applause, but it was probably more an expression of Ghani’s abhorrence of abuse against women rather than an actual policy.
Mohammad Farooq Qarikhil, a 20-year-old from Chahar Asyab district, told VICE News that he was voting for Ghani because the former finance minister had presented a “legitimate” economic plan. With unemployment estimated at up to 35 percent, the economy is a central issue for many college-age Afghans like Qarikhil.
“I voted for him in the first round,” Qarikhil said. “Even if there is a tenth round, I will still vote for Dr. Ghani.”
For those turned away at the door, however, the seeming disorder was another sign of how far the political scene in the country still has to go.
“If you don’t let us in, we won’t vote for you!” yelled a group of young men who said they had been waiting for two hours only to be blocked entrance due to overcrowding in the venue.
Another group that had come from Ghani’s native province of Logar, about an hour outside Kabul, were dejected when a gray-haired man in a charcoal suit asked simply, “Who told you to come from Logar?”
“I wanted to ask him about higher education, about the Konkor” — the nation’s college entrance exam, which has been the subject of corruption allegations — “and why some people even after taking it two years in a row still can’t get into universities,” Gholam Mohammad, a 22-year-old from west Kabul, told VICE News. “I want to know why private universities are of a lesser quality than public ones.”
Abdullah Abdullah has also tried attracting young voters. The former foreign minister promised a crowd of young voters at an event in a Kabul wedding hall last week that he would reform the college entrance exam. At a bicycle race organized on Friday in support of his presidential bid, the candidate spoke glowingly of athletics serving the “physical and moral well-being” of the nation.
The 10-kilometer race was preceded a week earlier by a press conference where Amrullah Saleh, the country’s former intelligence chief, endorsed Abdullah. The anti-corruption, anti-Pakistan, and anti-Taliban stances adopted by Saleh and his Green Trend movement has earned the ex-spy chief a considerable following among Afghanistan’s urban youth.
But Mohammad Modaser, a 27-year-old writer originally from Laghman province, told VICE News that the candidates’ engagement with young Afghans was insufficient.
“I don’t see conscious youth involvement,” he said. “So-called Pashtun activists are supporting Ghani no matter what decisions he makes. Dr. Abdullah’s supporters are doing the same.”
Though both candidates have repeatedly pledged to involve young Afghans in their administrations, Modaser fears that the country’s political status quo will exclude them from the decision-making process.
“It’s understood that the politics of running the country is not the job of the youth,” he said, adding that the youth had, like women, simply become “tools for vote-getting.”
“There are plenty of youth who get involved in activism or politics because they are offered money and not because they are working in the interests of other young Afghans,” Modaser said.
Baktash Siawash, the youngest member of Afghanistan’s parliament at 27 years old, told VICE News that he had chosen to stay out of the election because neither candidate had properly addressed the concerns of the Afghan people — particularly its youth.
“We’re facing a very difficult reality in the next five years,” Siawash said. “Foreign forces will leave. With them will go foreign money and interest in Afghanistan, but neither candidate has made this clear to the people. Nor have they said outright how they would address the coming realities.”
Siawash, a former popular television journalist, noted that Ghani and Abdullah had both solicited his endorsement, but said that he could not grant it to either of them.
“Nothing will change under their administrations,” Siawash predicted. “How can I tell people to vote for more of the same?”
Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye