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Young Afghan Candidates Take On Old Guard

Afghan candidate Zuhra Nawrozi's supporters attend an indoor rally in Kabul.
Afghan candidate Zuhra Nawrozi's supporters attend an indoor rally in Kabul.

Clad in a bright yellow head scarf and sporting a pen and notebook, Zuhra Nawrozi is unlike many of the candidates competing for a seat in Afghanistan's parliament.

On the campaign trail, the 30-year-old is flanked not by security guards but a young team of campaigners. They walk, rather than ride in bulletproof cars. Nawrozi's modest rented house serves as her campaign headquarters.

"Politicians shouldn't be detached from voters," says the mother of two. She is running for a seat in the capital, Kabul, an overcrowded city of 5 million that is frequently the target of deadly militant attacks. "We go out on the streets to talk and listen to ordinary people. We make a note of all their problems and needs. The streets are where these conversations should begin."

Zuhra Nawrozi being photographed in Kabul
Zuhra Nawrozi being photographed in Kabul

Nawrozi is among hundreds of young first-time independent candidates competing for the 249 seats in the lower house of parliament in the October 20 poll being contested by some 2,500 hopefuls.

Afghanistan's demographics would seemingly favor younger candidates -- around 70 percent of the estimated population of 30 million is below the age of 30. But the political first-timers face a daunting challenge from the old guard, which has long dominated politics through ethnic and tribal networks and deep pockets.

The campaign has been marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud. The vote is more than three years overdue due to administrative and legal issues, and a last-minute decision for biometric verification of voters has threatened to derail the vote and hope of a credible result.

The vote in the province of Ghazni has been cancelled altogether, and district elections that were supposed to be held the same day have been postponed. And on October 19, the elections in Kandahar Province were delayed a week following the assassination of the powerful provincial police commander the day before.

Even with the odds stacked against them, the wave of young candidates -- many of them reporters, entrepreneurs, and educators -- are on a mission to bring change to the country, where poverty is endemic, government corruption is pervasive, and war has raged for decades. They hope their visibility in the media and promises of change will resonate with a young and deeply disgruntled electorate.

Supporters hold posters of Afghan parliamentary candidate Zuhra Nawrozi in Kabul on October 12
Supporters hold posters of Afghan parliamentary candidate Zuhra Nawrozi in Kabul on October 12

"We want a parliament that gives voice to the people," says Nawrozi, a teacher and news reporter who is campaigning on a platform of empowering women through education and jobs. "We have lawmakers that have been in their positions for years, but have not given even a minute of their time to the people they are meant to represent."

'Generational Transition Of Power'

Many of the young generation came of age after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban from power in 2001 and have reaped the benefits of greater education, opportunities, and freedoms.

That includes Bilal Sarwary, a 36-year-old who is running for a seat in the province of Kunar in eastern Afghanistan.

"What we need in Afghanistan is a generational transition of power in politics," he says. "I don't see why we can't step up to the plate and be part of the solution."

Sarwary's family left Afghanistan during the devastating civil war in the 1990s and became refugees in neighboring Pakistan, where he grew up selling water on the streets. He was studying English while working as a salesman at the time of the U.S. invasion. He became an "accidental journalist," he says, hired by the BBC first as a translator and then as a producer. Sarwary received a scholarship and studied in the United States before returning home to launch his political career.

"Many members of my family didn't support the idea of me entering politics," says Sarwary, who is campaigning to create jobs and improve infrastructure in Kunar. "Nobody wants to have a family member involved in a venture that is so lethal and unpopular. I know it's a big risk, but we need to bring about change in Afghanistan."

At least 10 candidates have been killed, two abducted, and four wounded both before and after the start of the 20-day campaign on September 28. ​

'Discontent With The Status Quo'

Ali Adili, a researcher at Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul, notes the presence of young candidates from a wide range of backgrounds, many of whom emerged from protest movements.

"One underlying reason for this might be prevalent discontent with the status quo and an opportunity to effect change through parliament," he says.

Sarwary says parliament is the heart of the Afghan political system and has stopped functioning. "Lawmakers have been too busy fighting amongst themselves and they have paralyzed key government institutions," he says. "Parliament has become a source of ethnic divisions, and many lawmakers see parliament solely as a money-making avenue."

Female candidates also face social and cultural obstacles in this conservative country, where women play a limited role in public affairs despite 25 percent of seats in parliament being reserved for them.

"Socially, culturally, politically, and in terms of security women have more obstacles than men," says Wajda Faisal Azizi, a 26-year-old candidate from the northern province of Baghlan. "Compared to male candidates I have less of an opportunity to campaign, especially in districts [outside the provincial capital]."

"The male candidates are against us," adds Azizi, an Islamic-law graduate who is campaigning to protect the rights of women and children. "They speak against us. They work against us. They even encourage Islamic clerics to tell people in the mosques not to vote for women."

President Ashraf Ghani has attempted to clean up corrupt institutions and has appointed dozens of young, Western-educated Afghans to positions of power in his administration, including in the Security and Finance ministries and as senior advisers. Afghan women are also playing a greater role in government than ever, with 11 female deputy ministers, three female ministers, and five female ambassadors.

Diwa Samad, at 23, became the country's youngest-ever deputy minister when she was appointed to her post in the Public Health Ministry on October 7.

Such changes have not gone over well with some Afghans, who claim Ghani's appointments are purely symbolic and his appointees are inexperienced and lacking the necessary skills.

But Muslim Shirzad, a 28-year-old TV presenter at Tolo TV, the country's largest private television network, says if anyone can bring real change in Afghanistan, it is young people.

"This election is a good opportunity to serve my generation and bring the changes my generation needs," says Shirzad, who is also the chancellor of the private Jahan-e Noor University in Kabul. "The young generation are educated and they want to be involved in bringing change in their communities."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.