Elections and the media

Fourteen years for sending an indecent SMS. And ‘indecency’ amounts to a joke on President Zardari. The latest task of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) appears to be to to trace SMS and e-mails that “slander the political leadership of the country” under the equally ambiguous Cyber Crimes Act. Clear signs of a government that is treading on glass. And the situation is not very different with the western neighbour Afghanistan as the government has blocked numerous websites that have been particularly critical of the president and the government especially in the face of the looming elections.

The initial public euphoria of democracy seems to have dampened as the past five years have exposed the corrupt face of the political elite in democratic Afghanistan. Amidst unmet expectations and shattered hopes, deteriorating security and a tenous relationship that they have to maintain with the Taliban, the druglords and warlords, corrupt politicians and government servants as well as the foreign troops little seems to have changed for the avarage Afghan.

Even the international allies’ agenda of social-economic and political development of the country remains high in theory alone. Ending warlordism and paving the way for civil society in Afghanistan had been the primary expectations from them. But with warlords legislating in Parliament and the troops themselves heavily reliant on these criminal elements that goal still remains in pipe dream. Irrespective of the explanation given for the delay in consolidating social and democratic institutions of governance the Afghans have shown a strong commitment to personal freedoms and democratic governance. It has had a tradition of representative, constitutional democracy; a time when political parties were recognized under the secualar, democratic Constitution of 1964.
Many believe that it is not the foreign troops alone but even the President ‘installed’ by them who has failed them. Today there are over 80 registered political parties a majority of which are broad-based democratic parties committed to secular, democratic ideals and issues.

The media too has grown in the country with over 500 newspapers, 20 private television channels, 80-90 radio stations. The protests following the controversial Afghan Shiite Personal Status Law point towards the growing presence and visibility, however limited, of even women’s movements in the country. It is these groups and institutions that hold the key to draw in the population to help counter an equally resilient fundamentalist legacy.

Evidently, these polls might turn out to far more contentious than the earlier. With no real system in place to weed out non-serious candidates the options available for the voters is going to be extremely diverse. All that a prospective candidate requires is to be an Afghan of over 40 year in age and should be able to collect 10,000 signatures validating his candidature. Forty-four candidates, including former communists, ‘reformed’ Taliban and two women have registered to contest. A second round of voting is almost certain as so many candidates it will limit the possibility of any candidate receiving 50 percent of the vote. Even as the general lack of support for the government grows as do the questions surrounding Karzai’s credibility his biggest political rivals and competition comes from the likes of him - foreign-educated, foreign passport holding, dominant ethnic elite. And the familiar face of Zalmay Khalilzad, once US ambassador to Afghanistan, was also believed to be in contention. But the rumours of an US-appointed super chief executive to ‘assist’ the president are only adding noise to the political buzz. 

Meanwhile with his own popularity and his government’s legitimacy having hit an all-time low the President’s spin doctors are engaged in attempts to control the propaganda against him by blocking access to several websites based on the president’s name especially if they have been critical of him.

These are independent websites that donot enjoy government patronage. One of the sites in the name of the information minister – a man criticized for smothering the media in the past – has been blocked. Though in his name it is a mirror site of Kabul Press which has been consistenly battling the government over media freedoms and the release of several incarcerated journalists.

Even as public outcry and protests reflect a definite agenda pushing Afghanistan toward democratization, the joke in Afghanistan regarding the presidential candidates is that ‘…all a successful candidate needs is one vote — America’s.’

(The writer is an independe nt  researcher and filmmaker)

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