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Obama’s campaign lessons go online the Afghan way

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2009-08-14

The Afghan presidential campaign has generated a buzz online as candidates and supporters use the Internet to get their message across. It may be an American way of doing business, but it’s being implemented in a quintessentially Afghan style.

Over the past few weeks, Tooryalai Totakhil confesses, he’s been hooked.

Virtually every day, the 22-year-old political science student logs on to the Internet in his home in the Afghan capital of Kabul to get on Facebook and other websites to catch the latest on the Afghan presidential campaign.

 “I’m following all the information about the Afghan election on the Internet and especially on Facebook to get information about who’s running for the election, what they are promising, what their strategies are,” said Totakhil in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.  “I want to know who would be best for the country.”

For the first time in Afghanistan’s political history, presidential candidates as well as ordinary educated Afghans are turning to the Internet in the lead-up to the Aug. 20 presidential and provincial elections

Barely eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the Internet has started to penetrate Afghanistan. According to US government estimates, there were 580,000 Internet users in Afghanistan in 2007.

With more than 70% of the country’s estimated 31 million-strong population illiterate, Afghanistan is by no means a heavily wired nation. Yet, with roughly two-thirds of the population below the age of 25, Internet access is rapidly rising especially in major Afghan cities. At busy Internet cafés and telekiosks, many young Afghans boast new media skills comparable to their wired counterparts in far wealthier countries.

The cyber buzz over the 2009 elections appears to be spreading to the provinces as well. “I just talked to an Afghan friend who said he was surprised to be getting emails about the elections from outlying provinces,” said Thomas Ruttig, a seasoned UN diplomat and co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research group.

Yesterday’s unknowns, today’s cyber stars

In early April, when Ramazan Bashardost launched his presidential campaign, the 44-year-old candidate was considered an outsider, or gomnaam, as Afghans derisively refer to candidates with no chance of success.

With meager funds and little support from the warlords and political heavyweights that dominate Afghan politics, Bashardost’s prospects for getting national attention looked slim.

But by billing himself as “Afghanistan’s Obama,” Bashardost has dramatically raised his profile on the Internet, targeting the youth vote.

Over the past few months, Bashardost has diligently followed the cyber trail blazed by the US presidential candidate – in an Afghan way.

Visitors to his official campaign site cannot make online campaign contributions. But with the click of a mouse, members of the Afghan Diaspora can deposit a check – in US dollars – into Bashardost’s campaign account.

The real political cybergame is being played on Facebook, where most of the prominent candidates have official profiles as well as supporter sites. Bashardost, for instance, has about a dozen “support Bashardost” pages, some of which have more than 700 members.

His rival, former Afghan finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, has dominated the popular social networking site, with more than 15 Facebook groups with supporters ranging from a handful to more than 800 members.

The groups include Ghani supporters and detractors. The page, “One Million Strong for Ashraf Ghani” for instance, had more than 740 members at last count.

The gap between ether excitement and votes on the ground

The Internet of course is not an accurate mirror of reality and the candidates that have generated the most buzz on the Web, such as Ghani and Bashardost, have not managed to replicate their records on the ground.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is still the frontrunner and his unpopular, but effective backroom deals with warlords and tribal bosses, is likely to win him the most votes in the Aug. 20 poll.

Karzai also dominates the Afghan national media. A July report by the Independent Election Committee’s media office found the Afghan state media election coverage overwhelmingly favored the incumbent.

The Afghan media landscape has dramatically changed over the past few years, with hundreds of newspapers, dozens of radio stations and nearly 20 TV channels vying for audiences.

Several prominent former warlords and religious leaders own their own TV stations and many private media groups are linked to specific candidates or to their powerful supporters.

The lack of objectivity has turned Totakhil to the Web. “There is a big difference between what you can read in the newspapers or see on the TV and what you can find on the Internet,” he explained. “I don’t trust the TV stations and that is why a lot of my friends are using the Internet so we can see many opinions on the Internet.”

Date created : 2009-08-13