Monday, June 15, 2009

Facebook May Determine Select the Next Afghan President

I just got a Facebook invite to join yet another group. The notification caught my eye: “Afghanistan’s Obama, a candidate for change, who will stand against injustice, vows to empower minorities and curtail corruption.”

In a country long dominated by the Pashtuns and Tajiks, the Afghan Presidential candidate, Ramazan Bashardost’s Hazara background makes him an underdog in the upcoming elections.

As Afghans look to the West for leadership, several politicians vying to become president are emulating Obama and modeling after his campaign’s marketing strategy. The Facebook groups that are popping up daily for each of the forty hopefuls have one common goal: to mobilize a grassroots movement and lead their constituents to vote. The upcoming August election will be the second time since 2004 that Afghans show the world how they can organize free and fair elections and put Kalashnikovs aside.

In a country with one of the highest illiteracy rates and an ancient culture steeped in oral tradition, word-of-mouth, in the modernized form of Facebook, might generate enough buzz to determine a glorious win. Viral marketing on the Internet may bring a viable alternative to the current front-runner, Hamid Karzai. That is, if the political message is receptive for Afghans as Obama’s was for Americans.

Of Afghanistan’s estimated 32 million people, more than half are between the voting ages of 18 and 34; making the youth voting bloc even more crucial than it was in Obama’s win last November.

With more than 8 million cell phones and more than a half-million Internet subscribers in Afghanistan, a figure that is expected to grow exponentially, Facebook is poised as an incubator for civic dialogue.

Along with Bashardost, other presidential candidates with a visible presence on Facebook include many technocrats whose families live in exile. Take for example, Ashraf Ghani, the most popular on Facebook and someone likely to challenge Karzai as election day nears. Then there’s Sayed Jalal, a child prodigy who dropped out of Columbia University at age 13 and moved to Saudi Arabia. Jalal, a conservative candidate, plans to invoke Sharia Law and negotiate a deal with the Taliban.

Facebook may not goes as far as to usher in good governance or quell the Taliban re-insurgency in Afghanistan, but what it is doing is giving a louder voice to the forces of civil society (i.e., ordinary Afghans) and a way for the people of this landlocked country to circumvent extremists and build the foundations for a stable political apparatus. A successful election may leave Afghan warlords, Islamic clerics, and the Taliban with no option but to join the modern “Facebook” age. Only then will the American and NATO mission in Afghanistan be accomplished.
Transforming Afghanistan into a prosperous democracy is necessary for the sake of America’s position in the world. With the help of Facebook, Afghans now have a venue to share ideas. By choosing a government that values transparency, addresses human rights, and meets the basic needs of the people, America might just regain its standing as a nation famous for its rule of law.

Helping Afghans to get there, though, will require patience, in order for the next generation to uplift the country. In the meantime, Afghans are pushing the electoral process forward by learning from Obama’s campaign blueprint. The candidate who is the most vigilant in canvassing Facebook, and who uses this venue to develop a world-class brand, might become the next leader of the Afghan people.

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