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In Afghan vote, an optimistic, energetic young guard targeted the old

Why We Wrote This

Pushing for change always takes courage, especially in a place with warlord-heavy politics. Amid threats and violence, a new generation of Afghan candidates is trying to reshape the country’s possibilities.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Afghan election workers wait for vote-count papers of the parliamentary election, at the database center of Afghanistan Independent Election Commission in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 24, 2018.

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Afghanistan’s long-delayed parliamentary vote, held Oct. 20, was marred by insurgent attacks and sweeping organizational failures. But the elections, touted as a critical trial run for presidential elections next spring, also highlighted a new wave of budding politicians – the “defiant patriots,” as one analyst has dubbed them. This new generation is challenging the “old guard” politics that have dominated much of Afghanistan’s modern history: a system where elites have ruled with guns and cash, often along tribal and sectarian lines. With results expected Dec. 20, it is not yet clear how the new cohort measured up against more traditional candidates. “Can an idealistic, not rich, NGO-type win an election in Afghanistan?” asks Thomas Ruttig, co-director of a think tank in Kabul. “They can only do that when they link up with someone who finances them.” And even if they succeed at the polls, change won’t be easy, Afghanistan experts say. But in the face of threats and at a time of palpable hopelessness, this generation says it is committed to staying in Afghanistan, engaging in imperfect politics, and trying to become role models for change.

With sharp eyes and an articulate message, Afghan parliamentary candidate Shukria Jalalzai is on a mission of change, part of a vanguard of budding, new-generation politicians challenging Afghanistan’s “Old Guard” way of running things.

Ms. Jalalzai faced the same threats to win a seat as other candidates. One Taliban insurgent was blunt, when he called her:

“Shukria, we have some rockets as a gift for you,” he told the 27-year-old civil society activist. “Where should we send them?”

But that’s where the similarities with politics-as-usual ended for Jalalzai and her fellow “defiant patriots,” as one analyst has dubbed the members of this younger cohort. They aspire to nothing short of upending a culture of warlord-heavy politics that they blame for 40 years of conflict and corruption.

The parliamentary vote was finally held on Oct. 20, delayed for years by factional disputes over rules, with final results expected on Dec. 20. During two days of voting, some 250 insurgent attacks left at least 50 people dead.

More than 2,500 candidates competed for the assembly’s 250 seats, 68 of them reserved for women, in a vote widely touted as a critical trial run for presidential elections next spring.

At a time of palpable hopelessness across Afghanistan – where colossal problems of security, Taliban advances, and the increased legions of Afghans displaced by war, violence, and drought have all been compounded by the chaotic handling of the election – this new generation is determined to find reasons for optimism, and to act.

Despite the risks, and perhaps small chances of success to challenge a system long dominated by entrenched strongmen and well-endowed interests, these educated Afghans are choosing not to abandon their country for the West, as many of their peers have. Instead they are staying home, engaging in imperfect politics, and trying to become new role models for change.

“My main message is that we can build this country, not others,” says Jalalzai, who, despite her relative youth, has worked for years on civil society projects, especially for Afghan women and orphans. She was among 108 women running for 9 seats in Kabul.

Foreign forces “will not remain forever,” says Jalalzai in excellent English, her embroidered teal shawl capped by a black headscarf with gold trim, worn in a no-nonsense way. “If the US or others go out from Afghanistan, what do you have? We should study. We should work. And we should change our mindset. If we don’t change, it means we are going to a worse situation every day.”

Jalalzai knows the challenges and explains how she had to “accept that maybe I will fail,” because she refused to accept outside money or the support of a large political party.

“It’s a big challenge, but it’s not impossible that our generation can change the order of power,” says the candidate, who ran as an independent.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Afghan parliamentary election candidate Shukria Jalalzai, a civil society activist running for parliament, poses for a portrait in her campaign office on Nov. 1, 2018 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ms. Jalalzai is a member of Afghanistan's "new generation" of politicians trying to challenge Old Guard elite politics of warlords and tycoons.

Uphill battle

With final results still unknown, it is not yet clear how self-declared new-generation candidates measured up against Afghanistan’s Old Guard elites, who have ruled with the twin tools of guns and cash – often along tribal and sectarian lines – for much of Afghanistan’s modern history.

Even after US forces engineered the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Afghan “democracy” has been defined by more traditional mechanisms, with few limits placed on former warlords playing outsized roles.

Yet even with the emergence of a new generation committed to more democratic norms, change won’t be easy, say Afghanistan experts.

“There is something I call ‘defiant patriotism,’ which says: ‘We are staying here.’ But of course a lot of them belong to the elites, or this new-but-still-precarious middle class,” says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network think tank in Kabul.

“I thought this youth wave was a bit talked up,” says Mr. Ruttig. “The system has been so corrupted and dollarized, because you need a lot of money to get into parliament. So can an idealistic, not rich, NGO-type win an election in Afghanistan? They can only do that when they link up with someone who finances them. And I think the people who are really philanthropists, who want a democratic parliament and a democratic Afghanistan, are in the minority.”

Not every son or daughter of a warlord who is running shares the psychology of their father, says Ruttig. “But family ties are very strong here, and from them it’s expected that they look after the interests of their families. It’s very difficult to say: ‘No, I’m not interested. I want democratic politics,’ ” he says.

Despite years of preparation, the vote itself was marred by organizational failures, from lack of a reliable voter registry, to just more than 5,000 out of 7,000 polling stations being opened, to last-minute implementation of a confusing biometric voter verification system.

The result is “unprecedented disenfranchisement” of Afghans, says Ruttig, with at most 4 million ballots cast despite the existence of some 8.9 million registered voters and an estimated 12 million potential voters.

The risks of running

Coping with such weak institutions is just one of the challenges for those attempting to bring fresh air and optimism to a political scene very short of both. Another is the urban-rural divide, such that older, more conservative Afghans from rural areas might be unhappy with the current leadership, but “also don’t necessarily have enough trust in the younger urban elites,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named.

And those who are able to bridge those two Afghan worlds are most at risk, says the official, noting the shooting death on the eve of the campaign of one young candidate from the staunchly conservative southern city of Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban.

Nasir Mubarez was both a civil society activist and socially conservative. And he challenged the palace in Kabul, too. Few doubt he was killed by the Taliban.

“He was a good fit because he knew his constituencies well, he knew how to juggle the competing demands and ideas,” says the Western official. “He had enemies on all sides, but that made him appealing to many others, because people saw him as somebody really fighting for what people wanted.”

Mr. Mubarez’s killing – one of 10 or so candidates who lost their lives before voting day – was a setback for those who put stock in a new crop of Afghan politicians. It showed their vulnerability, unless they had the traditional protections of a militia or money.

“It’s really difficult for the young generation,” says the official. “They might have the [popular] support, but last minute [voters] might switch back to the Old Guard because they think, well, you have our support, but this does not translate to a seat at the table of power.”

'I don't want to buy their votes'

Trying to gain such a seat is Zakia Wardak, a widow with a master’s degree in architecture and a sophisticated manner, who lived in the US for years, founded her own engineering company in Afghanistan, and has a history of working for women’s empowerment.

She also has a powerful pedigree: Ms. Wardak’s father was a general who fought the Soviets in the 1980s, and was killed. Her late husband was a commander. Her brother was a general, too, and a well-known military analyst who planned to run for parliament – until he was assassinated in August.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Afghan parliamentary election candidate Zakia Wardak, a widow, architect, and engineer who has lost family to Afghanistan's constant conflicts, poses for a portrait on Nov. 3, 2018 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Broadcasting a message of change from the traditional strongman and sectarian politics, Ms. Wardak is one of a self-described "new generation" of politicians who ran in the Oct. 20 parliamentary vote. Final results are due on Dec. 20.

“Serving people is in our blood,” says Wardak, who decided to join the race after her daughter Mariam – part of the new generation of Afghans herself, who is US-educated and a grassroots organizer – said she could help bridge the wide gap between Afghans and their government. Wardak was taken aback by endless requests for cash and jobs, which she rejected.

“My voice spread out, and everybody knew that I am not someone who wants to put money in somebody’s pocket. I don’t want to buy their votes,” says Wardak, wearing an earth-tone headscarf with flower designs.

“The sad part is, money can do a lot of things in Afghanistan. Very rarely a person without money can do something,” she says. “People familiar with the current order know how to run it.”

But Wardak says she wants to provide a different role model.

“A lot people encouraged me, especially men, which was a surprise,” she says. “They were telling me: ‘A lot of damage has been done to this country by men. We need women leaders.’

“I hope there will be big changes in parliament this time, with new faces, a young generation, young energy, and also people who are thinking positively and more loyal to the national interest,” she adds.

“Students came to me who were living in the dorms. When I was looking at their shoes and their socks, I was crying for them,” she says. “They were telling me: ‘We don’t want money. We came here because we believe in you … because we want a good future.’ ”

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