Afghan Political Candidates:
Beyond Beards, Bullets, and Bribes
Afghans went to the polls on September 18, to choose 249 members to the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament. Some election observers saw signs of fraud even before the election and so discounted its results. The Taliban called for a boycott and threatened to maim or kill those who voted. What reasonable person would even think of running for office in those conditions? And yet, over 2500 candidates ran for the 240 seats available, and they weren’t all warlords, bagmen, gangsters, and reactionary clerics. Here are a few of the other candidates:
Gul Shirin Beg belongs to the Turkmen ethnic group, whose stronghold is up north along the border with Turkmenistan. Shireen’s family moved to Turkey when she was five, and there she earned a degree in pharmacy science. She’s not fluent in either of the country’s national languages, Dari and Pashto, but has been campaigning vigorously in Shar-i-Kohna (“the Old City”) one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods–a dark warren of narrow unpaved alleys and mud buildings. Her low-cost campaign has consisted mainly of walking the neighborhood, knocking on doors, and talking to the women in the compounds. Shireen has, however, attracted male support in Shar-i-Kohna too, mainly by talking about poor-people’s issues: getting streets paved, pushing for garbage collection, putting in a sewage system, piping in clean water, and getting money for a new mosque . Her staff of 50 volunteers also registered new voters—at least 500 women and 2,000 men.
Ramazan Bashardost spent 20 years in exile in France where he earned degrees in law and political science from French universities included the Sorbonne. His book on Afghan legal history won him a prestigious award from the French Academy of Political Sciences of France. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, he returned to Afghanistan and did a two-year stint as the country’s planning minister. He criticized the NGO’s that were supposedly rebuilding Afghanistan, charging that the outsized salaries paid to the foreign experts and staff of these NGOs was draining money out of the country and doing more harm than good. In 2004, he was forced to resign because of his outspoken and controversial views. He won a seat in Parliament in the next elections and then ran for president in 2009, campaigning fiercely against the fat-cat corruption rotting the country from the top. In order to highlight his charges, he drove the country in a tiny black Suzuki incapable of speeds above 40 mph, a stark contrast to the fleets of luxury cars used by the major candidates. Bashardost also pitched a tent across from the Parliament building and lived there throughout his campaign, making an ostentatious display of his frugality, meeting with poor petitioners, and giving away half his salary. Many call him an offbeat maverick; his enemies call him mentally unbalanced; he himself notes that these allegations were made about Gandhi too—while modestly declaring that he is no Gandhi and would never compare himself to that great man. His campaign symbol is a white dove of peace.
Farida Tarana, a 28 year old pop singer from Herat, stunned Afghan society in 2007 by entering the televised musical competition Afghan Star, the Afghan version of American Idol. Tarana (her name means “anthem”) was the first woman to compete on this show. She finished eighth out of twelve contestants. Back home in Herat, her TV appearance brought blistering criticism and some threats of bodily harm. No one in government stood up for her, she says, and that’s what got her thinking about getting into politics. Last year, she ran for a seat in the (largely ceremonial) Kabul Provincial Council—and won. Even though the Council has no real power, Tarana raised eyebrows by reaping the second most votes out of a field of 524 candidates. Now she’s running for Parliament and has not ruled out an eventual run for the presidency. Tarana has worked as a finance officer at the scandal-ridden Kabul Bank, but she denies rumors that her campaign has been financed by the bank. Go here for a glimpse of Tarana’s singing. [column]
Robina Jalali, a 25-year-old former Olympic athlete, is campaigning to promote the rights of women and young people. One of seven sisters, she studied secretly at home during the Taliban era. After they fell, she went back to school and began training as a sprinter, at first barefoot, then in sandals, then in cheap Chinese sneakers. In 2004, she ran the 100-meter event in Athens, one of two Afghan women on the five-athlete team. Jalali has traveled to more than 30 international track meets. In 2008, she went to the Olympics again, this time running in a Muslim headscarf. Her decision to rejoin the Olympic team came after her fellow runner Mehbooba Ahadyar received death threats from reactionaries who thought women should not take part in sports. “If I caved in to fear,” says Jalali, “…what kind of role model would I be?” Now she’s one of the 406 running for a seat in parliament. Some of the country’s women politicians criticize her candidacy, charging that’s she’s too young, too ill-educated, and too glamorous to be in Parliament. “If you want to run for modeling, you need a pretty face and wonderful body,” said lawmaker Shukira Barakzai, “but for parliament, the criteria is different.”
Zabihullah Jawanmard, is known as the “Elvis of Afghanistan” because he has made a name for himself impersonating the original “Elvis of Afghanistan” Ahmad Zahir, a legendary Afghan pop singer of the sixties and seventies. Jawanmard wears a shirt open to mid-belly, has long sideburns, and sports the cocksure manner of young Kabuli cool cats. “In parliament,” he has said, “I can represent Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.”
Zamir Kabuli, a stand-up comedian, has made a living out of imitating at politicians. He was suspended from the state-run Radio Television Afghanistan a few years ago for poking fun at the country’s leadership and parliament on television. “Politicians,” he says, “have money and power but no sense of humor.” So the 39-year-old comic decided to stop imitating politicians and become one himself. He has campaigned in the bazaars and drawn crowds (and laughs) with his impromptu speeches.