An Afghan voting centre in 2011. Image: Wikimedia Commons/US Marine Corps
Six months ago, I wrote about the first social media summit in Afghanistan, held in Kabul and run by American entrepreneur Eileen Guo. The Paiwand summit was a campaign for progress in the war-torn country, attracting some 200 activists and government officials to brainstorm how the social web could help transform Afghan society.
One of the projects to come out of that event is a citizen journalism platform called Paiwandgāh, which launched in February to cover the country’s upcoming presidential election from a hyperlocal, personal perspective, to counter the narrative of violence and oppression heralded by the mainstream media.
"Afghanistan is portrayed as this perpetual war where violence occurs on a daily basis, support for the Taliban is loud and widespread, women are still very oppressed,” Guo told me in an email. “But these stereotypes don't really take into account the amount of change that is taking place in Afghanistan—especially among the youth. There's a whole new generation that grew up in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and some of them are voting for the first time, with their smartphones in hand.”
Unfortunately, the race to replace current president Hamid Karzai is increasingly bloody as the April 5 election nears. There have been a string of Taliban attacks on the election offices in Kabul in the last two weeks, and dozens of casualties. The militant group has promised to use any and all force to disrupt the elections, and warned citizens they're risking their lives if they decide to vote.
Regardless, various reports point out that there’s a salient feeling of optimism throughout the country this time around. Next week’s election will be the first change in leadership since the Taliban was ousted, and the stakes are high; the new president will be responsible for keeping the country secure and stable, especially as the international community is set to withdraw support by the end of 2015.
While some citizens hope that a peaceful and legitimate transfer of power and new political leadership could revitalize the country, that optimism is dampened by fears of fraud, election rigging, meddling, coercion, and violence. Some fear that a corrupt election could undo whatever progress the country has made over the last decade.
"Despite having more than 20 million voter cards in circulation in a country with an estimated 11 million eligible voters, there are still long lines of Afghan men and women at registration stations eager to sign up," Al Jazeera reported.
Voters will choose from a slate of 11 candidates, representing a mix of ethnic backgrounds—Uzbek, Hazara, and Pashtun—and political ideals: former government officials, scholars, anti-Taliban activists, and as a leading running mate, a warlord accused of human rights violations.
Guo hopes that Paiwandgāh will encourage political engagement, give a voice to the otherwise unheard citizenry, and act as a resource for voters. The site collects hyperlocal reports on voting conditions, and opinions and concerns from various regions throughout the diverse country.
There are several reports of violence and people's reactions to recent attacks, but also notes on which candidates are targeting and advertising to certain regions, or ignoring them, and reports pointing out the dearth of polling centers, for example in Jowzjan and in Kabul. Paiwandgāh basically works like a focused, expanded version of Twitter, with all reports geolocated and mapped. (Many reports are linked back to Twitter.)
A photo from a report from citizen journalist Abdul Basir Sarwai in Mazar, on a protest condemning the attack on the Serena Hotel. Journalists, academics, youth called for a clear policy from the government against Taliban terrorists. Image: Paiwandgāh
"One of the reasons that we think citizen journalism is so important in places like Afghanistan is that certain places are simply very hard to reach,” said Guo. “This means that the opinions of the center—whether those are urban centers or geographic centers—tend to be louder than those on the periphery.”
She hopes the site will grow as the election nears, and attract the attention of international readers as well as Afghan citizens; there's a Dari, Pashto, and English version.
"We hope that there will be interest from around the world, Guo said. "And especially from the countries that have aid or military presence in Afghanistan."