The internet campaign of an Afghan Presidential candidate

With only around 1.5% of the population having access to the internet, it may look as if the role for online campaigning in the next Afghanistan Presidential election is rather limited. At least one candidate though is hoping to demonstrate otherwise in the run-up to voting on 20 August, with a second round if necessary about six weeks later.

That candidate is Ashraf Ghani, who is seen as one of the main possible challengers to the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. He was previously Karzai’s finance minister.

Ghani has recently launched his multilingual website at http://ashrafghani.af/along with YouTube and Twitter accounts.

Given Afghanistan’s size and the risk and difficulties of travelling around the country, his campaign is looking to use the internet to encourage people to host events and run campaigning in their local communities. That way, even though the campaign may only reach a small number of people directly online, it is hoped to branch out to a much wider audience offline.

The logic is similar to that employed in many election campaigns in countries with far higher levels of internet access. Even if many people have internet access, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are interested in finding out about elections and candidates. So the idea of using online organisation to generate offline campaigning is a tried and tested idea which can work.

According to a briefing note from the campaign, the online activity is also aimed at the expatriate Afghani communities around the world. This includes around 200,000 in the US, 100,000 in Germany, 50,000 in Canada and 45,000 in the UK. Those communities can both donate and also influence voters back in Afghanistan through community and family ties.

So far the online campaigning record seems to be a little mixed. The Twitter account contains a curious mix of styles in its tweets, with little interaction with others on Twitter and only a small number of followers. On YouTube the viewing figures are low but respectable. The most viewed of the two clips there so far has been viewed more often than the least popular YouTube clips from the three main parties in the UK. It is the website that appears to be doing best with, according to the campaign itself, donations running into tens of thousands of dollars.

Such online campaigning may also have one (possibly intentional) side-effect. By taking his campaign to the internet, including in English, Ghani is also making it much easier for people around the world to follow his campaigning. If there are any allegations of electoral malpractice, that international audience may come in very useful.

Whether or not these efforts can have an impact on an election such as Afghanistan’s Presidential contest will be interesting to see.

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