Young Candidates Spar in Mock Afghan Election
August 15, 2009 - Anand Gopal
KABUL -- Slipping by his rivals with a platform of security and reconstruction that resonated with war-weary voters, a new president of Afghanistan was elected this week: the baby-faced, 20-year-old Munir Farahmand.
That, at least, is how things unfolded on "The Candidate," a reality TV show that pits young Afghans against each other in a mock election.
Fans of the show watched over the last two and a half months as the young, make-believe candidates developed policies and campaigned. Viewers placed votes by sending text messages from their cell phones.
Afghanistan's real elections, scheduled to be held on Aug. 20, have been marred by insurgent violence, privilege-peddling and questions over candidates' associations with warlords.
Leading candidates, including incumbent Hamid Karzai, have avoided developing detailed platforms. They instead rely on patronage and tribal and political networks to win support.
But viewers of "The Candidate" have been treated to an entirely different experience. Young contestants have carefully cultivated policy proposals to curry favor with viewers. The winner got a laptop and office supplies to encourage him to set up a campaign office and get involved in politics in the real world.
"It's part of the process of getting Afghans to think about politics in terms of issues and not personalities," says Jahid Mohseni, chief executive of Tolo TV, the private channel that airs the program. "We are pushing for a shift in the culture, so that people start to realize how elections are supposed to work"
"The Candidate" draws on the success of viewer-input programs like the American Idol-inspired "Afghan Star," also from Tolo TV.
The election show featured six Afghans, all under the age of 23, who used a team of advisers to develop a platform. They then appeared in front of a panel of experts to defend their policies. At the close of each episode, viewers voted off the candidate they think performed most poorly.
"The whole experience has given me a lesson in democracy that I wouldn't have gotten just listening to the real campaigns," says Ajuba Daqiq, 19, who was the runner up to Mr. Farahmand.
Ms. Daqiq captured the imagination of many female university students in Kabul. Usually adorned in tailored jackets of green, red and black to match the Afghan flag, Ms. Daqiq campaigned with policies that were more detailed than that of any real candidates'.
She supported a prime ministerial system (Afghanistan has a presidential system) and called for negotiations and power-sharing with the Taliban. Ms. Daqiq also suggested starting compulsory military service to bolster the country's security forces.
For over two months, she took this message to Kabul's streets. Like other candidates, she canvassed Kabul University and other places frequented by young, educated Afghans. She even plastered her posters alongside those of actual presidential candidates.
On Wednesday, Ms. Daqiq went up against Mr. Farahmand in the season finale, where both faced tough questions from a panel of mostly of university professors. In one typical exchange, Mr. Farahmand presented his proposal to fund education. "According to my calculations, every schoolchild should pay 30 Afghanis (about 60 cents) to go to school," he said.
"Millions of Afghans are still living under the poverty line," shot back one of the judges. "Do you expect a child who sells plastic bags on the street to be able to afford to go to these private schools?"
That is the type of public scrutiny that actual candidates rarely receive here. Tolo TV hosted a televised presidential debate in July. But Mr. Karzai, who is considered the front-runner in the real elections, declined to show up, saying the channel was biased. On Thursday, Mr. Karzai said that he expects to win the election and then offer government posts to his biggest challengers.
In a country where the World Bank estimates only 13% of the rural population has access to electricity, shows such as "The Candidate" have a limited impact. "This is a niche show, mostly reaching educated people who can follow these issues," says Paul Wade, a spokesman for Tolo TV.
The station wouldn't give viewership numbers, but said it received tens of thousands of text message votes.
Still, Tolo executives hope the show will help develop a new generation of leaders. "I've been inspired by this show," says Daud Ashraf, 23 years old, a university student and fan of the program. "I want to run for office one day. I'm fed up with the fraud and violence of the real elections. We need new politicians."
It is still difficult, for even young Afghans to transcend the petty politics which they have grown up watching. Some losers on the show have been unwilling to accept the results of the mock democracy. They protested the results by storming off the stage and alleging that the results were rigged.
After Ms. Daqiq lost, she levied accusations against her opponents that could have come straight from the real campaign trail.
"I never expected to lose," she says. "The winner spent tons of money and bought a lot of [cell phone lines] so that he could vote for himself."
Ms. Daqiq's advisers say she is expressing the perseverance and tenacity required to be a politician here. Indeed, the confident teen is planning to launch a political career.
I want a show like that here...but I'm worried about voter fraud from the far right.