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'Obama of Afghanistan' hopes U.S. president's name will buoy his election chances

Candidates emulate the American's Internet strategies to reach out to young voters

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — On paper, the "Obama of Afghanistan" is not unlike the Obama of America: He advocates for change, for empowerment of the poor and exploited minorities, and for reformed democracy. Having been elected to government office once before, he has proven himself committed to serving his country and people.

The similarities pretty much end there, but that has not stopped presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost from billing himself as "Afghanistan's Obama," attaching the U.S. President's name to his fledgling campaign.

In fact, with several months to go before campaigning can officially begin, several politicians vying for Afghanistan's top office appear to be channelling Barack Obama, either in name or by emulating his campaign's trademark Internet strategies in an effort to start a buzz among the critical mass of young voters.

It seems to be working. Thousands of young people, many of whom have never cast ballots, have already pledged their support online for a handful of politicians expected to run in the country's second direct presidential election. The names are not yet official because Afghan law prevents politicians from declaring their candidacy until April 25.

Using the social networking website Facebook — the free service Mr. Obama's campaign team demonstrated was vital in shoring up backing — potential candidate Ashraf Ghani has gathered 2,500 supporters, most of them young. Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former government minister, has three separate pages promoting his policies. And Mr. Bashardost, the "Obama of Afghanistan" and widely considered an underdog, has an expanding list of 1,000 backers.

"We do not hope he will have the same politics as Obama," explained Javid Reza, a student who has been voluntarily marketing Mr. Bashardost. "The comparison between Bashardost and Obama is their courage to stand against the mainstream ideas and tell about what they think."

Experts monitoring the runup to the election say it is unlikely that the candidates will be able to harness Internet-related strategies to build support or raise funds at a scale comparable with Mr. Obama. His Internet-savvy campaign architects have been credited with forever altering the way politicians communicate with and organize constituents.

However, in a country unaccustomed to democracy, barren of pedigreed campaign strategists and unpractised in democratic political strategy, the candidates' early copycatting is a positive signal that they understand the need to be creative, and aggressive, to secure votes, particularly among the critical youth demographic. About two-thirds of Afghanistan's population is under 25 years of age.

"It's a very difficult job. They have to start with the basics," explained Abdullah Ahmadzai, an official with the Asia Foundation's elections program in Afghanistan. "The candidates have to do a lot of civic education before they go and campaign for themselves. People will certainly try to do their best and be as innovative as possible."

Anticipating that the candidates will have their hands full when campaigning begins — legally they may start only one month before the Aug. 20 election — some young people, including Afghans living in the United States and Canada, have begun nudging the campaigns along by setting up additional websites and conducting their own voter information seminars.

"We have been studying about all this for a long time, how to actually build support, how to explain who to vote for," said Turaj Rais, a 22-year-old student at American University in Kabul who began a Facebook page for Mr. Jalali.

While Mr. Rais does support Mr. Jalali, he got involved in the campaign largely because he found the first presidential election in 2004 confusing.

"I didn't vote in the last election. I didn't know anything about [the candidates]," he said. In addition to not understanding the process, Mr. Rais was bothered that many of his fellow students simply voted for the candidate their village elders insisted on.

"That's what happens in Afghanistan," he said, adding that his mission is to persuade the thousands of young Afghans on Facebook to figure out for themselves how to evaluate candidates. "It should be about how you feel about a person, what you know about the person."

For the candidate Mr. Jalali, all of this is welcome news. In an interview from his home in Washington, the Afghan-American said he is glad for any help.

"The majority of Afghans believe in peace, stability, accountable government and transparency," he said. "However, it's very difficult to mobilize in a country where security is a problem."

Using the Internet is a good solution to that problem, particularly if it also attracts youth, he said.

"Young people are a solid block of the electorate," he said. "Anybody who can enjoy the support of the young has a good chance to win."

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