The South Asia Channel

Bird’s eye view of the Afghan presidential debate

By Martine van Bijlert Sunday afternoon, flicking through the channels (men singing, dubbed cartoons, news in Pashtu) wondering whether it was going to happen, and there it was: the debate. A large light blue studio, an expectant audience and the three contenders sitting slightly nervous on the first row.   It was an interesting two-hour ...

By Martine van Bijlert

Sunday afternoon, flicking through the channels (men singing, dubbed cartoons, news in Pashtu) wondering whether it was going to happen, and there it was: the debate. A large light blue studio, an expectant audience and the three contenders sitting slightly nervous on the first row.  

It was an interesting two-hour watch, for several reasons, one of them being that the debate had rules. And the rules applied to all three contenders equally. This meant that even the President of Afghanistan was cut off when his two or three minutes were up. He bristled, asked for more time, argued these were important subjects, but was made to comply. That was kind of novel — a bit uncomfortable and slightly exhilarating at the same time.
 
The debate discussed real issues. And even though perceptive Afghans commented that the candidates weren’t that concrete or practical and didn’t explain how they were going to improve this or that (which is hard in two or three minutes), the answers were serious and went beyond the usual general talk of ‘national unity for all’. The presenter quizzed them on why they wanted to be President; the reasons for insecurity and how they intended to address this; what they planned to do about corruption, civilian casualties, unemployment and talks with the Taliban; their opinions on the free market system; whether the insurgency was a Pashtun problem; how they intended to deal with the international community and the neighbours; and what to do with warlords (several viewers noted that this was the one question that Karzai dodged).
 
Bashardost was articulate and populist. He showed that he had listened well while travelling the country’s troubled provinces, arguing how bad governance and the inclusion of ‘killers’ in the government had fed the insurgency. Ashraf Ghani was structured and tried not to be too complicated, while still brandishing his ‘expert credentials’. Karzai was eloquent enough, but had trouble keeping time.
 
Of particular interest was the round where the candidates were asked ‘personal questions’. Bashardost was asked how his lifestyle and his image as some kind of malang would fit the office of President. He answered in one-liners: how can you fill your stomach when the people go hungry; if the people face death each day, a President shouldn’t hide behind his body guards; whoever sits in a palace forgets about the poor. Ashraf Ghani was asked whether his long stay in the US, his academic background, his health and his short temper wouldn’t stand in the way of his election. He smiled (to illustrate that he was not always bad-tempered) and explained the course of his cancer, now cured, and how he was and would continue to be firm with whoever broke the law. Karzai was asked that if it was true that he was not firm in his decisions and that he made and changed coalitions easily, why people should vote for him again. He described how he had brought the country from within the storm to a quiet place and how he accommodated and accommodated for the good of the country and would continue to do so a thousand times over until there was total peace.
 
The debate was civil but pointed. There were no personal attacks, but enough comments that could easily be read between the lines.
 
Abdullah’s place was empty. When I asked why, his team said that he hadn’t been sure about the impartiality of the television station, that the agenda and the timing had been unclear, that he didn’t know until late whether Karzai would attend, and that he had been caught up in a campaign rally (which sounds very similar to the list of reasons Karzai gave when he didn’t attend an earlier debate). It would have been interesting to have him added to the mix.
 
Was it exciting? It’s hard to tell. Many Afghans nowadays are not so easily impressed. Will it change how people vote? I doubt it. There are so many considerations that determine the final voting decisions; what a candidate says at any given time is only a very small part of that. And there is no consensus over what makes a good debate, so every viewer had a different opinion over who was most persuasive. But to see the President and his contenders confronted with questions of real concern, not being allowed to dodge or to exceed the time given, not being given time to prepare carefully crafted statements, to see them offer themselves to the opinion of the people, was quite unique. It added another bit of color to Afghan politics.

Martine van Bijlert is the co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, and this post was originally published on a blog there.

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