Thursday, September 23, 2010

By: Beka Feathers

Last Saturday, Afghans across the country went to the polls to choose the men and women who will represent them for the next five years in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly (unless they were in the 20 percent of the country where the security situation kept polling places from opening, and the further undisclosed portion where people were simply too frightened to show up). Preliminary results will be announced later today, and a few days from now, domestic and international election monitors will offer their opinions on whether the vote was "free and fair." Nobody seems to want to ask whether the election was a success.

What does success mean? As with nearly everything else in Afghanistan, it depends on where you stand. For the individual candidates, of course, it means a seat in the new parliament. For Hamid Karzai, it means a body of people without the will or organization to provide any serious opposition to his policies. For ISAF and the international community, it largely means the ability to claim that despite fraud and violence, the Afghan people are still committed to democracy. And for the Afghan people themselves?

Every post-election report suggests that success isn't even on the radar screens of most Afghans. Their confidence in the ability of any national institution to provide responsible governance or to sustain the rule of law has fallen so low that for many, it just wasn’t worth the risk of showing up. Even an optimistic estimate says that turnout was down 43 percent from the 2005 parliamentary elections. Polling places were sparsely attended even in relatively secure areas (unless you count the people who locked themselves inside the stations so that they could vote over and over again).

It isn't just the security situation behind this electoral malaise. It's true that over a thousand polling stations never opened, and that the Taliban made good on threats to attack voting centers and election monitors. It's also true that many warlord candidates were running their own intimidation campaigns to prevent their opponents' supporters from getting to the polls.[1] But the most serious enemy Afghan democracy faced last Saturday was doubt.

The Afghan people doubt that elections bring change. They doubt that those elected are interested in anything other than lining their own pockets. They doubt that any of their supposed allies in the international community still believe democracy can flourish in Afghanistan, no matter what their upbeat press conferences say. That's the real reason they aren't going to the polls.

On some of these points, there's not a lot that well-intentioned international observers can do from Washington, London, Kabul or anywhere else. The parliament might not improve conditions for the average Afghan, newly-elected members might do nothing but line their pockets, violence and instability will almost certainly continue to be a feature of daily life. The only aspect of this process over which internationals have complete control is whether or not we telegraph to the Afghan people and the world that we think the new parliament is a failure before it even gets off the ground. On this point, the most important lesson we can learn is to start talking out of only one side of our mouths.

It's hard to find a uniformly positive perspective anywhere these days about the central government in Kabul, and the Afghan people know that. They aren't looking for the international community to paint a false and rosy picture of a functioning democratic bureaucracy when they know that they've got a collection of corrupt and indifferent strongmen. They don't have time to waste on American domestic PR struggles. If they look to the outside at all, it's for solutions, and support for solutions, to these problems.

International advocates for Afghan democracy can do a lot to hold their own contractors and governments accountable for corruption. They can support the fledgling efforts of the parliament to assert itself against Karzai's increasingly broad claims of authority. They can treat individual members of parliament as men and women with a responsibility to uphold the will of their constituents, rather than as placeholders to be trotted out on official occasions. And most importantly, international actors can start matching words to actions - either the election was a success for big-picture democracy, or it means we should wash our hands of the whole project. ISAF forces, American taxpayers, and certainly the Afghan people can't afford to have it both ways for any longer.

The current political conversation in Afghanistan is about the ideals that underpin the system, not about the policies of individual factions. The value of democracy is itself an issue up for debate, and that campaign did not end on September 18. If reform-minded Afghans and their international partners want average Afghans to trade in their doubt, they need to do what losing parties do in a mature democracy. Instead of bemoaning the injustice of their loss, they need to start planning for the next one.

[1] For more information on pre-election tactics by candidates, see this excellent summary by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit “Afghan Election, 2010: Alternative Narratives.” http://www.areu.org.af/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=28&Itemid=33

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