April 17, 2014 12:00 am JST

Afghan youth vote, smartphones in hand

EILEEN GUO

Despite a cellphone ban in polling centers during Afghanistan's April 5 election, photos of smiling Afghans with inked fingers have popped up all over the country's social media. The "voter selfies" are one of many signs that the nation's youth are proud of their involvement in Afghan civic life.

     Nearly two-thirds of the population is under 25. So, during the presidential and provincial council campaigns initiatives focused on this important youth demographic. They included MTV-style get-out-the-vote drives, featuring rap songs, and active social media campaigning by candidates.

     That the inked fingers of voters have become a status symbol to be shared online is a sign of the many ways that Afghanistan has changed over the past decade.  

     The country is no longer merely a stereotype of perpetual warfare, chronic poverty and oppressed women. While these realities still exist, a new reality led by the younger generation that came of age in the post-Taliban era is also emerging.

     This so-called "Generation America" has grown up influenced by global trends. Turkish and South Korean soap operas airing on local television, as well as western-style civic engagement programs and hair salons advertising Justin Bieber-style cuts, have helped young Afghans become increasingly aware of what's happening beyond the country's borders. These trends have been adapted and localized.

     As a result, young Afghans are more educated, aware and technologically savvy than previous generations. Their identity and priorities are shaped by these differences, being driven less by traditional ethnicity-oriented definitions of identity and more by a national awareness.

     The biggest difference between the new generation and its elders is their attitude towards change. "Some people would react to almost any sort of change in a very weak manner, calling it 'anti-Afghan'," said Qasem Foushanji, a Kabul-based visual artist and musician. "But now, more people have been realizing that not all change is bad, that it's essential to change in order to become constructive."

     The civic awakening of the country's youth has been accompanied by new media tools that amplify Afghan voices in ways once unimaginable.

     In 2002, there were an estimated 20,000 phones in Afghanistan. Now the country has 20 million mobile subscribers. Combined with a variety of platforms aimed specifically at elevating Afghan voices on election day, cellphone tools probably made the April 5 vote the country's most transparent ever.

Election transparency

While new technology platforms could not prevent irregularities or voter fraud, they did play an important role in bringing attention to them in a way that was impossible in previous elections. Despite a last-minute nationwide text message ban, the Paiwandgah citizen journalism social media platform still received nearly 600 polling-station reports from 27 of the country's 34 provinces.

     According to the Independent Election Commission, 7 million of the 12 million eligible voters cast a ballot on April 5, far more than the 4 million who participated in the last election, in 2009.

     Many Afghans declared the high participation rate, despite a series of attacks around the country in the lead-up to the vote, to be a public referendum against the Taliban. In this vein, one of the most shared election-related images on social media was a cartoon of a burka-clad woman showing a Taliban fighter her inked middle finger.

     "The most important side of this election was that it showed the people are now ready to stand tall against the destroyers and say, 'We no longer will let you step forward,'" said Foushanji.

     The election is not yet over though. If, as many analysts expect, no presidential candidate won 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff between the two election front-runners, seen to be former finance minister and World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, tentatively set for May 28.

     A key unknown is whether the enthusiasm shown toward the April 5 vote will extend to a second day of polling, especially if fraud proves more serious than the 2,000 complaints reported by the election commission. This would dishearten voters, especially the younger ones.

     Shakir Azizi, a civil society activist from Kandahar who handled social media strategy for one candidate, is hopeful, "Afghanistan is very, very new to democracy, but Afghans are fast learners." 

Eileen Guo is the founder of Impassion Afghanistan, the country's first digital media agency, and of Paiwandgah, an online citizen journalism platform.

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