Young Afghan voters dismayed by old faces and warlords

Many young Afghans hoped democracy would bring fresh new voices into political life, but the list of candidates for next year's presidential election has dashed dreams of imminent change.

Youth activists reacted in anger to the array of former warlords, veteran politicians and establishment insiders lining up to rule the country as it enters a new era with the withdrawal of US-led NATO troops.

The minimum voting age in Afghanistan is 18 and about 68 percent of the population is under the age of 25 -- meaning a whole new generation of voters has come of age since the fall of the hardline Taliban regime in 2001.

But their concerns and ambitions look set to be sidelined as leading candidates re-fight old power struggles often dating back to Afghanistan's 1992-1996 civil war.

"We see the old faces running again and unfortunately most of them have dark pasts," Aziz Tayeb, 25, chairman of the Afghanistan youth parliament, told AFP after surveying the nominations list that closed on Sunday.

"The election teams have been made on ethnic connections -- they have not come together based on any common cause, and it seems they don't have any plans for young people.

"We will go to the polls, but we have to choose between bad and worse."

The UN said last week that at least 1.7 million new voter registration cards had already been issued for the April election -- many of them to voters who turned 18 since Hamid Karzai retained power in the fraud-tainted 2009 poll.

Voters will have a choice between 27 candidates including the president's little-known elder brother Qayum Karzai, 70-year-old foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, and former Al-Qaeda-linked warlord Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf.

Sayyaf provoked particular comment among Kabul's urban middle-class youth, as he is seen as an old-style Islamist with highly conservative views on women's rights and social freedoms.

Some candidates 'involved in war crimes'

"We support the elections, there is no other way out of our crisis than going to the polls," said Mohammad Sangar Hamedzai, 27, director of the umbrella group Young Activists Network for Reform and Change.

"But we are concerned about it as some candidates and their teams have controversial backgrounds. Some names were involved in wars and war crimes."

Hamedzai also said that young Afghans were wary of being drawn in by politicians' unfulfillable promises.

"The youth can play a very important role in the elections but there is also fear that politicians will use them only to reach their goals and then disown them," he said.

Any hopes for a young presidential candidate were misplaced as the minimum age for nominations was 40 -- a limit that apparently prevented prominent female activist Fawzia Koofi from running.

One topic of keen debate among young Afghans on Facebook and Twitter has been mainstream, modernising candidates signing up extremist vice-presidential picks.

Ashraf Ghani, a former US-based academic known for his efficiency as finance minister, attracted widespread criticism for choosing Abdul Rashid Dostum, a much-feared Uzbek warlord.

Dostum, who has his own militia based in the northern province of Jowzjan, is accused of allowing the murder of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001 as well as of many other war crimes.

On Monday, he tried to head off damage to Ghani's slickly-managed, Internet-savvy campaign by issuing an apparent apology for his part in Afghanistan's bloody past.

But Ahmad Shabir, 27, a university medical student, told AFP that it was just a plot to curry favour, and that young Afghans would not be deceived by candidates' false claims.

"They say they regret their past to keep controversies such as their crimes during the civil war off the agenda at least until the election is over," he said.

"But an apology does not help until these people are out of power and brought to justice."