Historic Debate Put Policy First, Showed Growth in Afghan Democracy
 
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For the first time in Afghan history, the top Presidential candidates debated on live television Tuesday night. The debates provided the best opportunity yet for candidates to explain their stances on pressing national issues, with many commentators calling the event a major step for democracy in Afghanistan. 

The TV debate, focused on security issues though not entirely limited, were broadcasted live from Kabul on Tolo TV, TOLOnews, Lemar and Radio Arman. Five of the 11 total Presidential candidates participated: Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Zalmai Rasoul, Abdul Rahim Wardak and Abdul Qayoum Karzai.

Ironically, despite it being the most contentious issue facing Kabul-Washington relations at this time, the five candidates gathered on Tuesday to debate found the most common ground in their thoughts the still pending Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which would ensure a continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan post-2014 if signed.

"The security agreement is part of the Strategic Partnership Agreement that was already signed, endorsed by the National Assembly and the Loya Jirga," Presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul said. "We hope to sign it, and we hope that signing the security agreement will lead to sustainable peace and security in the country."

When the issue of the political structure of the Afghan government came up, among the candidates, only Abdullah Abdullah supported a change from the presidential to parliamentary system. He argued the change would be Constitutional, and that the new system would help strengthen Afghan political parties, which play only a small role in Afghan politics.

Zalmai Rassoul, Abdul Rahim Wardak and Qayoum Karzai supported keeping the current political system while Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai said that he would convene a Loya Jirga after four years as President to see if people wanted a change.

Wardak emphasized the importance of developing the Afghan forces in way that can make them an effective force in the region, not just Afghanistan.

"What I believe is that Afghanistan should have a powerful military that can not only maintain internal peace, but also contribute to regional and global stability," Presidential candidate Wardak said. He also called on the Afghan forces to be "non-political".

Although the candidates were unable to touch on all the major policy issues they will need to address this campaign season, it was the first of what is expected to be a number of Presidential debates in the last two months before the April vote.

Reception of the debate was overwhelmingly positive, which is likely to make further rounds more probable.

"The debate has led to an intellectual revolution in Afghanistan, it helped people know with what body language, purpose, program and plan a candidate enters the election contest," Afghan political analyst Zia Zia said.

"I am very happy that people in Afghanistan can get find their solutions through pen and debate, not weapons and war," a local resident from Herat told TOLOnews after the debate.

However, not all the reception was wholly positive, some had feedback on the debate that could serve the next round well to heed.

"Talks were general in a sense that the candidates talked about security, but without a perspective or background," civil society activist Aziz Rafee said. "The topic of development of Afghanistan was tabled without considering the resources of Afghanistan."

"We wanted the candidates to announce their stance on the Taliban, but they didn't do so," a Kabul resident said. "We fear that the policy of calling the Taliban 'brothers' will continue and morale of our armed services undermined."

Looking ahead, there are just under 60 days remaining before the April vote, and plenty of campaigning still to come. Candidates have largely focused their appearances to Kabul in the first days of the campaign season, but they are expected to hit the road soon to visit communities around the country.

There will likely be further debates to come, focusing on other areas of public policy as well, such as the economy, education and international relations.

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