Author: Ismael Saadat, June 11 2014 - "Sir, I have a request. As a future president of Afghanistan, please make sure we are no longer killed for political reasons. Let us die our natural deaths.”

This is how Afzal Khan Katawazi, a young man from Kabul, voiced his weariness at the lack of security which most people feel in Afghanistan. He was among over 100 people from different walks of life who were invited to ask questions on a recent episode of our TV and radio debate show Open Jirga.

This special episode was devoted to a debate between the audience and the two presidential hopefuls who are facing each other in the second round of this momentous election. (Watch a ten-minute clip of the programme with English subtitles and the full show in Dari and Pashto on YouTube.)

The contenders for the run-off this month - Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former World Bank economist, and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah - were both invited. But Abdullah Abdullah declined, saying he had no plans to take part in any debate. 

Tough questions

Open Jirga was the first show in Afghanistan to suggest a debate between the two.

But the absence of one candidate meant there was more pressure on me as the chair to maintain balance and to make sure that Mr Ghani’s answers did not go unchallenged.

I knew supporters of both candidates would be watching us very carefully and scrutinising every single word. But I felt confident that as long as we kept in mind the BBC’s guidelines about impartiality, it would result in a tough but fair debate.

It was certainly a fiery one: every single member of the studio audience wanted to ask questions or have their say - and those who did get the chance to talk often asked multiple questions in one go.

One of them was a white-bearded man from northern Sar-e-Pul province, Haji Abdul Ghafar Balooch.

After he made his first point, I encouraged the next person to speak.

“I got this chance by my rudeness and pushiness, so now I have two more questions,” was the swift - and rather abrupt - answer from Mr Balooch!

Urgent issues

In fact, all the audience were eager to question Mr Ghani on issues ranging from corruption to unemployment, from the lack of higher education opportunities to the most overriding concern of all - security.

It was an issue that was raised one way or the other in every episode of our special series of Open Jirga before the election. 

And it was no different on this occasion too: while approximately 7 million Afghans took part in the first round of voting on 5 April despite Taliban threats, the second round is happening at the peak of the so-called fighting season and there’s great concern the warmer weather may offer the Taliban more of a chance to disrupt the polls.

Mr Ghani responded, “You simply want peace. You want an end to this war. I promise to work wholeheartedly for bringing peace and stability to this land.” 

Ethnic anxieties

Interestingly, however, there was an additional major concern that was repeatedly voiced by the audience: the risks posed by ethnic divisions.

For example, Nematullah from the northern province of Samangan said, “This nation is anxious. All these people who have come here represent the nation. They are worried that this is a scenario of north-south division. But what we want is not to hear the sound of war anymore …  We want all our ethnical groups, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmen, Baluchis, Pashaees and others, to live side by side in a united Afghanistan.”

Ogei, a young Pashtun woman from the south eastern province of Khost also asked: “My question is about differences among ethnic groups. What is your plan for establishing national unity?”

Mr Ghani joined the audience to applaud the questioner and then tried to assure them that this was not a matter of concern: “This nation has a real national unity. You should take pride in the fact that no ethnic group in Afghanistan has ever raised the slogan of separation,” he replied.

Strong response

Another worried member of the audience, Haji Nader from the volatile southern province of Helmand, suggested that a deal between the two candidates may be a solution:  “People are in fear. Will it not be good that you two form a coalition [government] and therefore relieve people from this fear and anxiety?”

Mr Ghani answered: “We are different. We have different points of view, different ways of management, different professional experience and we’re different in the way we accept responsibility. You should decide [between us].”

The run-off is planned to take place on 14 June.

Ensuring a lasting peace and maintaining security and stability will no doubt top the list of challenges that the next president will have to face.
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