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Afghanistan: Election Campaign Begins On Airwaves

JEMB Besmellah Besmel (file photo) The UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) announced on 15 August that the official campaign period for Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga (People's Assembly, the lower house of the National Assembly) and provincial councils is to begin on 17 August and continue until 15 September, three days before the polling date.

While candidates have already been able to hold campaign rallies and distribute posters and leaflets after certifying their candidacy with the JEMB, for the next 30 days they are allowed to start their official campaign using broadcast media through a regulated system.

Candidates are now able to access a "sponsored advertisement" system supervised by the JEMB's Media Commission, according to the JEMB's 15 August press release. JEMB Chairman Besmellah Besmel said the system will enable candidates to produce and broadcast campaign advertisements on radio and television "free of charge, courtesy of donors, for an equal amount of airtime." The system will allow every candidate to have "an equal opportunity to reach voters in their constituencies through the broadcast media," Besmel added.

Each Wolesi Jirga candidate will be allocated a five-minute slot to be broadcast twice on radio or one advertisement of two minutes to be broadcast on television twice. Provincial-council candidates are entitled to a four-minute segment to be broadcast once on radio or a two-minute segment to be aired on television once.

Besmel expressed hopes for a "lively and peaceful campaign of free expression" and encouraged all candidates to "make full use" of the 30-day "official campaign period to reach voters through radio or television."

The final decision by the JEMB to allow all candidates sponsored equal time came after a series of confusing regulations.

According to a July report, "Afghanistan Elections: Endgame or New Beginning?" by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), the JEMB on 7 July had banned candidates from advertising in newspapers for the entire campaign, while radio and television advertisements could be purchased between 17 August and 15 September. On 11 July, the JEMB reversed itself and banned all paid campaign advertisements on broadcast media, but allowed newspaper advertisements, limited to four pages per candidate.

While giving each candidate an equal amount of airtime is commendable, since financial and political resources of candidates vary widely, as the ICG pointed out in its report, if each of Kabul's 701 candidates for both the Wolesi Jirga and provincial-council seats chose to take the television option, "it would mean nearly 2 1/2 hours of dedicated programming for 26 days (the campaign period minus Fridays)."

It is very unlikely that the majority of voters would dedicate so much time to choosing their favorite candidates. Moreover, in such a crowded schedule, it is very difficult for a voter to determine the slot when his or her favorite candidate is due to appear on television.

For the undecided but interested voters, the order and time of appearance of candidates may be crucial. It is likely that the most determined voter becomes tired after watching two hours of short speeches and limits their choices by watching part of the program.

While there are no perfect models that could have been offered to Afghanistan -- a country with no democratic experience -- on which to base its crucial election-campaign advertisement system, with 5,800 candidates a campaign period of more than 30 days with more broadcast-media exposure would have helped the voters to gain more knowledge about the candidates.

Under the circumstances, the future of Afghanistan's democracy falls on the wisdom of the country's voters. It is up to the Afghans to canvass the candidates, among whose ranks are known gross violators of human rights and opponents of democracy itself, and select those candidates with good records or no records at all. Afghans will have to hope that many of those with no records turn out to support democracy and civil society.

See also:

Afghanistan: Threats, Intimidation Reported Against Female Candidates

For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" webpage.