Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Dividing the Field: Who shapes the electoral landscape in a Herat township – and how?

S Reza Kazemi 8 min

In Herat, elders have divided a township into areas supporting different presidential contenders. They are motivated by financial and other benefits and a desire to end up on the winning side in any case. But they are also divided, mainly along political party lines. This heralds the coming of potentially highly contested presidential and provincial council elections, at least at this local level. At the same time, the elders are carefully deliberating on how to keep peace in the short and longer run. Besides, generational and gender lines are increasingly differentiating, with ordinary Afghans, male and female, each concerned about their own socio-economic survival. AAN’s guest author Said Reza Kazemi* explains the shaping of the electoral field in a Herat township where he has carried out fieldwork in late 2013 and early 2014.

Because most informants requested not to be identified and because this dispatch is primarily interested in how a local-level electoral field is demarcated, names of local persons and places have been withheld.

For a few weeks after the official launch of the campaign period, there was confusion and hectic manoeuvring in the township AAN is reporting from. This particular township has a history of about twenty years and a population of around 8,000 people who are mostly Shia Hazaras and Sayyeds. (1) Meetings, small and big, private and public, were held daily in mosques, real estate agencies, shops and homes. Rumours circulated about who is supporting whom, who has brought whose campaign to which part of the township and who has made how much money from it. “I have eight meetings to go to today,” the chief of the township’s Community Development Council (CDC) told this author one early morning, referring obliquely to the bustling electoral atmosphere in the locality.

Together with the imam (prayer leader) of the township’s major mosque, the CDC chief had just returned from the capital, Kabul. His trip proved to be much more connected to the elections than to any other business. Posters of one presidential candidate were stashed in a room in his house. But just a couple of days later, he changed his position, together with some other CDC members and elders, to support a rival candidate. The CDC chief and the imam had met more than one presidential candidate in Kabul, circumspectly analysing the costs and benefits involved in supporting a particular campaign in exchange for patronage. “Those posters are now thrown into the wastepaper,” remarked a youth activist who had accompanied the author to the house.

The CDC chief and the imam are among what are locally called the kalanha (elders and people with influence). They include CDC members, so-called white-beards, mullahs, businesspeople and landowners. In a way, they comprise the township’s aristocracy or elite. The kalanha matter, because they have large numbers of qawm (kins through blood), khesh (kins through non-consanguineous marriage) and neighbours that they can mobilise, simply due to their older age and longer life experience. They also have long-standing ties with former political-military structures (tanzims), which have evolved into party-like organisations in post-2001 Afghanistan. In this Herat township, these parties (mainly the two wings of Hezb-e Wahdat, one led by former MP Muhammad Mohaqqeq and one by out-going Second Vice-President Abdul Karim Khalili) are providing political, financial and other support in the forms of privately run schools, institutes of higher education, clinics, orphanages and charities. Such projects connect the parties to the electorally significant local population; these institutions’ administrators are among or connected to the kalanha. These connections can shift, though. Because of these and other connections, the presidential campaign headquarters approaches the kalanha to mobilise vote banks.

But the kalanha are divided in shifting and unpredictable ways, particularly along political party lines, between the several branches of Hezb-e Wahdat. Some elders-politicians are cultivating new or re-working old ties with other presidential candidates such as Zalmai Rassul. In the township in question, the kalanha have continued negotiations on how to reap as many benefits from the candidates as they can without disrupting local peace and order in the run-up to and after the polling day. A key concern is how to make a profit while ensuring the community’s safety in the longer run, especially if there is any post-election violence extending from the centre to this periphery or vice versa.

As time passes, however, negotiations among the elders seem to become rougher and more divisive. But they have vowed not to fall out among themselves with provocative acts – such as fixing an excessive number of one candidate’s posters in an area where the elders support another candidate. Local politics are outwardly clear-cut but inwardly complicated and deceptive because actors weigh numerous interests and concerns in the decision-making process.

To increase their benefits, the kalanha have divided the township into three areas supporting the three major presidential candidates (i.e., Zalmai Rassul, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai). They are doing this to bring more campaigns to the township and thereby make more financial and other profits. Besides, dividing the support between three candidates would increase the chances of the township to ending up on the side of the winner of the coming election in most, if not all, cases.

The lower part of the township has been divided into two competing areas: one supporting Rassul’s campaign and one backing that of Abdullah. Those supporting Rassul following Qayyum Karzai’s withdrawal (our analysis of this here) have an old kinship and political party tie with Qayyum Karzai’s second running mate, former MP Mohammad Nur Akbari. Those backing Abdullah are trying to connect to his first running mate, Mohaqqeq.

The kalanha of the middle part of the township, developed later than the lower part, have established a clear electoral stance: support Rassul’s presidential bid, through his second running mate and former Bamiyan provincial governor, Habiba Sarabi. The upper part of the township, developed last, has also been divided into two competing camps: one represented by the township’s only provincial council candidate who has paired with Abdullah to mobilise supporters in both presidential and provincial council elections and one that favours Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, through his second running mate, former justice minister Sarwar Danesh. With Danesh, this group of elders are connected through the Hezb-e Wahdat wing of Khalili. One of the kalanha in the lower and upper parts of the township that support Abdullah remarked, it “does not matter if there are two campaigns from one candidate [i.e., Abdullah] in the township; it is even better and more beneficial.”

“Cultured youth” and youth gangs

In addition to the political party divide, the electoral field is also contested along generational and gender lines with individuals and groups moving across these boundaries.

Like the elders, the township’s youth also matter, in at least two ways. First, the youth are not as influential, but they comprise the largest category of voters in the township. Second, there is a generational gap: the youth who are organised around the township’s two cultural centres and who are locally called jawanan-e farhangi (“cultured youth”) have come, during the last decade or so, to suspect the intentions of the elders. “The elders are very cunning. We should catch a campaign before they do,” a leading youth activist told this author. Some elders feel, as one stated, that these youth are “like sheep without a shepherd” because they do not “listen to their elders.”

Some of these youth are initiating independent channels to connect to national politics. Some have, for example, co-ordinated with previous acquaintances in Kabul to contact Gul Agha Sherzai, through his first running mate, former MP Sayyed Hossain Alemi Balkhi. However, there is little difference between the elders and the youth with regard to their motivation: it is largely financial, for the elders to further enrich themselves and for these youth to recover the costs of their cultural centres as well as to make some additional money. Due to their previous campaign experience in 2009 when they claim they were cheated (i.e., they were paid extremely less than they had been promised), some of the youth activists have approximately 730,000 Afghani (about 14,600 Dollars) as their price tag for a ‘decent’ two-month campaign activity:

  • Salary for 20 people: 200,000 Afghani
  • Rent: 30,000 Afghani
  • Food for staff and twice for local people in the local mosque and wedding hall: 200,000 Afghani
  • Office equipment and operation: 100,000 Afghani
  • Publicity: 200,000 Afghani
  • Total: 730,000 Afghani

Another type of youth organisation exists: small youth gangs – one calls itself Godzilla. Members are involved in petty crime, such as extortion of the local population. Most are out of school and unemployed. Several are drug addicts. Nonetheless, they have strong friendship ties. “These children are beyond our control,” several parents admitted more than once.

Some of these gangs see the elections primarily as a source for fun talking. They are looking forward to making some money from the various campaigns and, if that does not happen, they plan to at least “eat some good food in some campaign offices”. The township’s authorities – parental, religious, official and otherwise – are trying to tie them to institutions such as the two cultural centres run by their peers.

Both kinds of youth group – the cultured ones and the gang members – differ from their parents, mainly because their parents were raised in rural areas with little connection to the outside world while they are themselves living their lives around today’s Herat, a large urban space with ancient and ever-increasing links to the outside world, particularly neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan. But strong differences exist between the two groups – they rarely meet and talk to each other and each seems to be moving on its own path into the future in terms of socialisation and attitudes to education, employment and life in general. One also wonders how the two types of youth group might behave and which might prove more useful if Afghanistan is again fragmented because of, for instance, a failed election.

Generational and gender lines

Importantly, girls and women are also becoming active in the context of the election. Many girls who were indirectly contacted through this author’s female relatives find elections “an interesting subject to talk about and to have fun, imitating the ways several presidential candidates speak and behave themselves”. Underneath this playful talk, however, are serious and profound concerns. Several of these girls recently took the university entrance test, which turned into a scandal in Herat when the test’s questions were disclosed the night before the test was to be taken (read a recent AAN’s dispatch on the test here). “We want to continue to study, but are worried about the future. So we are thinking of voting for a presidential candidate that is neither repetitive (i.e., advocates for further transformation of Afghanistan’s state and society) nor Taleban-like but a politician in support of women’s rights,” several of these girls said.

Women of a higher age are taking more organised initiatives. Apparently urged by their male relatives or colleagues in the CDC and other institutions, the CDC’s women members and other women with influence (particularly those employed and contributing to their families’ economic well-being; more females are office staff members, teachers and workers in this township and other parts of Herat compared to most of Afghanistan) have started negotiations about supporting a specific presidential candidate. “We have talked among ourselves to support a candidate who does not have hands stained in war and is supportive of women’s right to live as active members of the community,” a women member of the CDC told this author. This conforms to the thinking of women of the younger generation. However, there are also generational differences. Older women tend to walk in the footsteps of their male relatives while younger, better educated and more professional women and girls are more independently oriented. However, similar to men, most women are also financially motivated as far as the electoral campaign is concerned. In the previous election, some girls and women made at least Afs 15,000 each (about 300 Dollars) and received food stipends for two months in return for supporting President Hamed Karzai’s bid and that of a parliamentary candidate. A rival parliamentary candidate had reportedly paid some Afs 10,000 (about 200 Dollars) for any girl or woman who campaigned in his favour in the township.

The mobilisation in this Herat township points to a highly factionalised election on grounds of political, generational, gender and other orientations, at least at this local level. These orientations are deceptively simple – they, in fact, shift and are difficult, if not impossible, to predict because they are hugely overlapping, interwoven and subject to sudden change. This also tells us something about how the coming election means different things to different people and how high the stakes are, not only for the elite (national and provincial) who face a turning point in Afghanistan’s post-2001 power arrangements but also for the local, ordinary and down-to-earth Afghan people who are, first and foremost, concerned about their socio-economic survival.

Read this author’s earlier dispatch on local election-related discourses here.


* Said Reza Kazemi is a PhD student (2013–16) at the University of Heidelberg in Germany where he is focussing on the impact of global migration on the Afghan family institution in local and transnational contexts. This is part of a larger study at the university on the demographic turn in the junction of cultures. He has previously worked as a researcher for the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).


(1) Some 35 such townships have been and are being developed around Herat city. They house an estimated half-million people. Most are private initiatives that are also at least politically supported by co-ethnic, like-minded politicians in Kabul and in Herat. The inhabitants are mostly Shia Hazaras and Sayyeds. For instance, behind Herat’s industrial estate alone, the following seven townships are being developed:

1. Ali Sher Nawaee Township;

2. Super Cola Township;

3. Hajji Zaher Plastic Township;

4. Darwish Township;

5. Andisha Township;

6. Yasin Township; and

7. Mohammadi Township.

Source: Author’s interviews with several urban developers, early 2014, Herat.


campaigning Candidates Elections Herat presidential candidates provincial council