Candidates embrace new campaigning methods
KABUL - The irony is stark when one goes to meet Dr Ramzan Bashardost one of Afghanistan’s forty one presidential candidates for the 20 August elections.
Seated in a small, hastily-erected canvas tent – the floor dusty and missing a carpet – and surrounded by a dozen supporters, mostly labourers, his campaign office belies an election headquarters, preparing for a crucial presidential race that is just weeks away.
The bodyguards are absent. There is no retinue of staff to follow him around, nor is there a sea of banners outside ‘Ground Zero’, except for a lone poster attached to the entrance of his tent with an Obama-esque buzzword, ‘Change’, translated into four languages.
The frugality and the artlessness of the entire operation is, however, somewhat misleading. Dr Bashardost has outflanked many of his rivals, by getting his election campaign on the internet, effectively embracing new media and technology to reach out to a young, technologically-savvy electorate that could play a decisive role in Election 2009.
"This is a new powerful instrument which helps me to be in touch with educated Afghans," said Dr Bashardost, about his website, which manages to stay afloat with the help of "a friend who updates it when he gets home from his day job."
But, it's not just a modest number (since an estimated 60 per cent of the population are under the age of 25 years) of the 17 million registered voters in Afghanistan that candidates are looking to accost with their messaging on the World Wide Web.
Dr Bashardost is, in particular, keen on engaging the large Afghan diaspora community that migrated to the West in the 1980s and 90s, who will help fund, at least a part of, his election campaign.
"So far, I have received US$ 20,000 from Afghan expats, living mainly in the U.S. and Europe, who have come on my website and then decided to donate money. It's a big support to be in touch with this community," he added.
At a time, when the world, including Afghanistan, is mired in an economic slowdown, every dollar is precious, and the internet plays an important role in getting these contributions.
Some of the more prominent candidates with greater resources at their disposal, too, are using new media to spread their message to lands and people they would not have ordinarily been able to approach. Omar Ansari, Chief-of-Staff of independent candidate and former finance minister, Dr Ashraf Ghani, said their website received an estimable 10,000 hits and 5,000 messages from supporters within two days of launching.
"Technology is new in Afghanistan. I've heard there are two million internet users today. If we can send our message to these two million educated internet users, they will definitely be able to influence others...so our message will reach the rest of the country," said Mr Ansari.
In fact, in a bid to "influence" locals, as well as expat Afghans (who have so far contributed US$ 30,000 via bank transfers), the Ghani campaign team dovetails their website with tools such as YouTube, Flickr, and social networking sites like Facebook, where the candidate's fan page has 784 supporters, ranging from an Afghan living in Germany to an American student from Washington DC.
This enthusiasm from netizens, albeit measured, still, underlines Dr Bashardost's belief that Election 2009 has been transformed to a "world election", where the "destiny of Afghanistan affects everybody." According to Dr Bashardost, there is an interest in Afghanistan today -- both from, foreigners, whose governments dispense aid, paid, primarily, through taxpayers' dollars; and Afghans living abroad -- and that his website gives a "true picture" about himself and the current situation in the country.
In effect, new media also allows presidential aspirants the opportunity to control the messaging, at a time when most candidates kvetch about being treated unfairly by -- state and private -- broadcasters and newspapers. Dr Ghani, a keen internet surfer, for instance, writes a blog, which his team hopes he will update on a daily basis.
Dr Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and a former foreign minister from Kandahar, uses mobile telephony in conjunction with his website to reach voters. Sayeed Mohammad Rezvani, Dr Abdullah's communications guru, said "SMS has an important role to play in this campaign, since many Afghans have cell phones, as opposed to computers and internet access."
Mr Rezvani makes a valid point. In a country where more than half the population is illiterate, where many areas don't have electricity, let alone internet and computers, traditional campaigning methods still hold primacy for all candidates, including Ghani, Abdullah, Bashardost and, even, Hamid Karzai, as they attempt to connect with the electorate.
In reality, the internet, today, is an uncommon medium (since barely 15 per cent of candidates have websites), but nonetheless a useful corollary to newspaper advertisements, television and radio spots, and the old fashion meet-and-greet stops by candidates that give corporeal substance to campaigns.
"This (traditional campaigning) is our priority. We are doing an events calendar. We want to take Ghani to every province, so he can talk to the people," said Mr Ansari.
Not to be left behind, Dr Abdullah's team have begun flooding cities with colourful posters and billboards, and have, so far, bought airtime on "on seven television channels and more than 30 radio stations" country-wide.
But not everybody has the capacity to run large campaigns. "Our principal problem is that we don't have enough finance to pay for many advertisements," admitted Dr Bashardost.
No wonder, the internet will be a valuable ally for this candidate and others, in the years to come.
By Aditya Mehta, UNAMA