Afghanistan's TV 'Election': Better Than the Real Thing

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Aryn Baker for TIME

A wall in Kabul shows posters of candidates in the presidential election, including one for Mujiburahman Poya, 18, a participant on The Candidate, a reality-TV show

It is Mujiburahman Poya's youth that makes his face jump out from among the posters of the 41 candidates for Afghanistan's presidential election next month. Surrounded by images of the grizzled faces of older men sporting traditional hats or business suits, 18-year-old Poya's poster declares him "The Real Afghanistan" and promises that if elected, he will enrich the country rather than himself. No matter how appealing voters find that message in a country plagued by corruption, though, it will be at least another 22 years before they can tick Poya's name at the polling booths. (Afghanistan's constitution sets the minimum age for a President at 40.) Poya isn't actually running for election; he is a contestant on The Candidate, a reality-TV show that follows six Afghans ages 22 or younger as they compete to develop the policies, campaign and support necessary to win a poll of viewers voting by SMS text messages on their mobile phones.

And in a lackluster presidential race (the outcome — the re-election of President Hamid Karzai — is all but certain), The Candidate may be the only thing getting Afghans to think about the policies they would like to see a President adopt.

There had been some hope for a genuinely competitive election last spring, when several popular politicians announced plans to run for President, but Karzai responded by winning endorsements from key power brokers and making shrewd political alliances with former rivals, giving himself a commanding lead. A recent opinion poll found Karzai enjoying only a 33% approval rate, but that was still miles ahead of all his competitors. That prompted a Western diplomat to lament that Karzai was both "unpopular and unbeatable."

Despite high voter-registration figures, a combination of security fears, the potential for vote-rigging and indifference toward the candidates has many analysts fearing a dangerously low turnout that could undermine the legitimacy of the winning candidate and hand the Taliban a powerful propaganda tool. "I don't see much enthusiasm for the elections," says Haroun Mir, head of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies, a Kabul-based think tank. "There is a feeling that nothing will change, the old power brokers will still be in charge, so why bother?"

Producers of The Candidate, which airs on the privately owned Tolo TV network, are hoping to help by focusing Afghans on what they want from their political leaders. And Tolo has a successful model for its idea of tele-democracy: its wildly popular show Afghan Star, which mimicks American Idol and allows millions of viewers to vote via text message each week for their favorite singer. "One of the key successes of Afghan Star was that it demonstrated the concept of voting. So we started to think, How do we do the same thing in terms of elections?" says Tolo chief Jahid Mohseni. "One of the critical problems we have in Afghanistan is that we have a personality approach to politics — it's all about who the person is, his family or his ethnicity. It's never about policy and it is never about the outcome you want. So we thought a program based on a competition about policies could change that."

Each week, the show's contestants debate a policy topic such as security, education, health care and the economy. Although a rotating panel of judges rate the candidates based on presentation, strategy and persuasiveness, viewers get the final say, voting one candidate off the show each week, starting with the fourth episode and culminating a week before the real election. The show's debates have become part of the country's everyday political discussions, blurring the line between reality TV and political reality. "These six candidates are better than the real candidates because they talk about platforms and have a vision for what needs to be done," says presenter Jawed Jurat. Already, he says, some of the real candidates are copying the platforms of their youthful television counterparts.

The show's contestants are given $1,300 a month to spend on real-world campaigning — posters, rallies and travel to other provinces. For Ahmed Farid Danish, a 20-year-old from Kabul who dresses for TV in a crystal-studded tuxedo jacket and iridescent lavender tie, going out on the campaign trail was the hardest part. The son of a prominent politician, he had always thought about running for higher office. "Now that I am having to meet all these people and talk about the issues in public, I think maybe I don't want to run for President," he confided the week before he was voted off the program. Not so for Ajuba Dadqiq, 19, the only female candidate. Vivacious and stunning, the schoolteacher covers her head in a handmade silk scarf with the bold black, red and green stripes of the Afghan flag. She says she has always wanted to be President. Being on The Candidate, she says, is the first step in a long political career. "By the time I reach the legal age to be President, I hope the people of Afghanistan are ready to accept a female President. If they are not, I will work hard to make the people ready."

Two weeks ago, 18-year-old Poya became the first candidate voted off the show. But instead of making a graceful concession speech, he refused the sixth-place plaque and stormed offstage. Outside the studio, he spluttered his anger and vitriol, hinting darkly that the vote was rigged and elections were useless. "After this, it is clear that I must move ahead by force, not by talent," he shouted. "Afghanistan is not ready for democracy. If people want it, there is hope, but now no one is thinking about their future. They are not thinking about who they choose, so that is why they suffer." The moment was captured by behind-the-scenes cameras, offering a reality-TV moment uncomfortably close to Afghanistan's reality.