In Herat, campaign activity for Afghanistan’s crucial simultaneous presidential and provincial council elections began well before the official start on 2 February 2014, at least in parts of the city’s outskirts. The candidates are increasingly making themselves known to ordinary people and some presidential candidates have also been making initial appearances in local communities. Small groups of activists are holding meetings – mostly at night and away from the public eye. Locals with influence have tough calculations to make, not just thinking short term – how to make a profit out of the anticipated lavish campaign expenditures, but also how to ensure their future is safe, even if their favourite candidate ultimately loses or – and this is a real fear – if there is any post-election violence, whether national or localised. AAN’s guest author, Said Reza Kazemi,* who has researched the pre-election atmosphere in a Herat township, reports.
For local security reasons and because this dispatch is primarily interested in local election-related discourses and patterns, names of places and persons have been withheld.
It was one afternoon, unusually bright and sunny in this year’s winter in Herat, when word came from a shahrak (usually translated as ‘township’, these are newish settlements usually on the outskirts of a city, although this particular one is some 20 years old with a population of around 8,000 people) that the only provincial council candidate from the shahrak had invited what he called the cultured and intellectual youth (jawanan-e farhangi wa roshanfekr) to a pre-election event at his home. “We’re gonna eat shurwa-ye gusht-e gusfand,” one of the invited youth blurted out. (1) Different young people organised around affiliations to a few cultural centres in the township discussed their plans before heading to the candidate’s house in the evening.
The young people known to the author spoke at the meeting about their disillusionment. Significantly, this had not been caused by the outcome of the previous presidential election, but by their claim that they were not given the sum they had been promised for their local campaign activity by the Karzai team that came to power in distant – and as they see it – corrupt Kabul. One of the leading youth activists in the township, who was in charge of campaign finance in the township in the 2009 election, lamented that out of some 100,000 Dollars spent on Karzai’s campaign in Herat province, only 50,000 Afghanis – around 1,000 Dollars – had come to them. “They went and did not look behind them once they had won,” he said. “We should have clearer demands this time and know in advance how much will be ours out of the overall campaign expenditure for Herat.” The group agreed upon this as their condition for carrying out any campaign activity in the coming elections.
The event at the candidate’s house ended with no clear conclusion as to whether the participants would, categorically, support him or not, but it was unusually candid – both on the part of the candidate himself and on the part of the participating youth, thanks to the fragile post-2001 freedom of expression in the country. As could have been predicted, the candidate evoked his common ground with the young people. He said he was from the same township as them and that he depended on them to make his way to the provincial council. The more sceptical among the young people pressed him hard to give a hint about his political and financial clout, but in vain. Most of the conversation that evening revolved around how to make a living, employment and semi-urban development – and how these topics connected with the upcoming elections. These were some of the comments made by the participants:
It is now the time to get money from and milk all the candidates and the ‘haves’ behind them, but we will vote for our township’s candidate in the end.
Tonight we eat your food, so we will vote for you.
The winner of any election in Afghanistan is the one who feeds most people.
We should have someone in the government to help us get passports, install some of us in some school as teachers and in other places – [benefits] some other people [have enjoyed] and bring development to our township.
We should use every opportunity inside and outside the mosque to make our candidate known and help him succeed in his bid.
These demands are, to some extent, predictable as it is now a few years since the land and housing market has stagnated, construction work has largely come to a halt and employment for the uneducated has considerably declined in Herat’s suburbs. Numerous workers, shopkeepers and other ordinary people told this author that this was due to growing doubts about Afghanistan’s future which had been caused by the on-going international military and civilian drawdown, the unclear status of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the US, and the lack of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and its armed opposition. These particular youth are educated, but they still feel the same economic fears. They are particularly furious at President Karzai, who symbolises the existing Afghan state and insists on his negotiating position with the US and other parts of the US-led international community with political and economic costs for Afghanistan as people.
Herat has also seen a sharp increase in crime, particularly kidnappings and thefts (see, for example, here). On 1 February 2014, on the evening before the start of the official campaign period, two campaign staff members of Abdullah Abdullah were killed in Herat (read here). In the youths’ township, the previous two weeks or so have witnessed several security-related incidents, including a kidnapping and one serious fight between the youth from the township and those from a neighbouring village. The criminal landscape is, however, complicated, at least in this township, because it is likely that these incidents also had something to do with existing personal enmities and other inter-personal, intra-community and inter-community grievances (eg disputes over land, marriage and so on), in addition to purely financial motives. The township is currently exploring ways its own youth can patrol the area at night and ensure safety using simple shotguns bought from the marketplace in Herat. Members of the township’s Community Development Council (CDC) or shura-ye enkeshafi-ye qarya, are particularly worried about the occurrence of security-related incidents, for example a suicide bombing, taking place during the juma bazaar (Friday Market) in the run up to polling day.(2) The Friday Market was closed by the CDC on 31 January 2014 for fear of attacks and disturbances. The market sellers, however, regarded the closure as a conspiracy by the township’s shopkeepers to keep their stalls closed.
Presidential candidates making initial contacts in local communities
As well as being a focus of the attention of provincial council candidates, this township, like others has also seen some of the presidential candidates slowly extending their reach into local communities on Herat’s outskirts. In the district in which the township is located, Dr Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Zalmay Rassul were all already busy through their campaign teams, recruiting members and trying to win community support, even before the official campaign period approached. Many people are being mobilised through ethnically based patronage networks. So, for example, when it comes to Hazaras, Abdullah’s first running mate Muhammad Mohaqqeq, Ghani’s second running mate Sarwar Danesh, and Rassul’s second running mate Habiba Sorabi (all Hazara) are all helping connect their presidential ticket holders to different segments of this ethnic group’s population in and around Herat city. Most of Herat’s Hazaras and Shia Sayyeds are newcomers to the province, having settled there during the last 20 years (3). Support from this community’s co-ethnic politicians in Kabul has been crucial, given that the province is predominantly Tajik (or Farsiwan) with a large Pashtun minority, and that successive Herat provincial governments have been opposed to the new Hazara/Sayyed settlements in and around Herat. The development of Herat as a city and as a multi-ethnic entity continues at a fast speed with several on-going urban development projects, particularly around the city’s airport. (4) According to one Tajik urban developer, the incomers have meant the practical defeat of particularly Ismail Khan’s concept of Herat as a purely Tajik/Farsiwan city. (5) However, the leading members of the province feel about the newcomers, they are important electorally and are being courted.
But ethnicity is not the only driver of public mobilisation in the coming elections. Local communities such as the township in question have deep concerns about their future security and economic survival. Surrounded by people from other ethno-political backgrounds, the township’s people are studying their options very carefully, trying to strike a tricky balance between their short and long-term well-being. Several influential people talked to this author about elections as “a cause of corruption and discord” (maye-ye ekhtelaf wa fesad) and se ruz (literally three days, but meaning transient). Some even pondered about supporting a Pashtun candidate as they were not sure what might happen and, more specifically, what Afghanistan’s majority ethnic Pashtuns might do if the next president comes out to be a non-Pashtun. This means that local people already have a fear about potential post-election disorder and violence, whether at the national or local level. However, in the words of one CDC member:
We are like the small stones that remain on the bed of a running stream. During the past 20 years or so, politicians have come and gone, but most ordinary people have stayed where they were. The politicians are the running water and the people are the small stones that remain underneath.
This does not mean people have stopped manoeuvring before they finally position themselves behind certain presidential and provincial council election candidates. The stakes are high nationally and locally, so it is difficult to decide on a fixed position. These decisions are not made at public events but in private conversations between confidantes and in behind-the-scenes deal-making. The township’s CDC members have already started negotiations about which candidates to support. The head of the CDC and the leader of the major mosque in the township are also just back from Kabul where they met some of the presidential candidates, most probably trying to win patronage in exchange for campaign support. Meanwhile, some of the youth activists are running here and there, even between Herat and Kabul, trying to find someone to pay (or promise to pay) the costs of their cultural centres from among the presidential and provincial council hopefuls. Much like the politicians themselves, quite ordinary Afghan people too are – albeit slowly – learning the tricks of the ‘democratic’ game called ‘elections’.
* Said Reza Kazemi is a PhD student (2013-2016) 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) Shurwa-ye gusht-e gusfand is the favourite Afghan meal of soup (shurwa) with mutton, which is considered tastier, more expensive and even more dignified than shurwa with beef or chicken.
(2) Source: CDC meeting, 30 January 2014, attended by this author.
(3) Before this new settlers, Herat historically featured a sizeable Shia minority, although it is said that its number declined during the turmoil of the last decades. Local Shias traditionally inhabited the urban centre, where they were said to constitute one third of the population before the war, and some villages near the border with Iran.
(4) Source: Author’s interview with an urban developer, 25 January 2014, Herat.
(5) Source: Author’s interview, 25 January 2014, Herat.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020