Afghan elections: Good news amid pessimism

Amir Taheri

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The latest general election in Afghanistan has provided a new occasion for pundits and experts, once again, to label the country as a lost cause and invite the major powers still involved there to get out as fast as they can.

The elections are dismissed as a meaningless charade if only because fewer than 40 percent of those eligible to vote actually did so while reams of reports have been produced on all kinds of fraudulent practices to affect the outcome.

The problem today is that the average citizen is faced with a tsunami of information, which seems impressive in its depth and diversity but, on closer examination, is revealed to be produced by a cancer-like multiplication of a few often narrow partisan views.

The current fashionable view would have us believe that Afghanistan would be more comfortable with rule by the Taliban than an ersatz form of democracy imposed by Western powers.

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The fact that at the height of their power the Taliban never managed to make their rule acceptable to more than a fraction of the Afghan population is quietly ignored.

In the year 2000, the Taliban controlled Kabul and pretended to be the legitimate government of Afghanistan and with mediation by Qatar had persuaded the Clinton administration in Washington to grant them full diplomatic recognition. President Clinton’s special envoy Bill Richardson had visited Kabul and met with Taliban leader Mullah Omar to put the final touches to a grand bargain.

Afghanistan had never had an over-centralized system of government if only because of its rich religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity which is best reflected by a parliamentary system of government

Amir Taheri

Clinton presidency

A number of minor diplomatic hitches prevented the scheme to be completed before the end of the Clinton presidency.

The incoming administration of President George W Bush was not opposed to the deal hatched by Clinton but wanted to take time and shape its own version. Then came the 9/11 attacks which destroyed the scheme. Without it, we might have had yet another obnoxious Islamist regime backed by the US and its allies.

Interestingly, Washington policymakers paid no attention to the fact that the Taliban were in meaningful control of no more than half of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces. Nor did they mind that, at the time, almost half of the nation’s population had become refugees, mostly in Pakistan and Iran.

Despite the fact that the claim of Taliban’s popularity has never been tested in anything resembling an election, we still have pundits who insist that the antediluvian gang is the true representative of the Afghan people.

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Even if the new Afghan regime installed with help from the US was far from ideal, the ultimate failure of the Taliban experiment was good news for the “Muslim world” and beyond. It showed that Islamist extremism in its various forms, from Khomeinism in Iran to Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Iraq and Syria are never able to submit to a genuine electoral test in any shape or form.

Those who dismiss the Afghan election because of the low voter turnout forget the fact that it takes a long time for electoral politics to become part of a nation’s ambient culture.

In Great Britain, where electoral politics started, voter participation was limited to between 10 and 12 percent only because few people were classed as eligible while women didn’t have the vote until the 1920s. It took Britain and the US 150 years to reach their cruising speed in electoral politics.

Historic difference

A Western observer has little difficulty in imagining the geographical distance between London and Kabul but would find it hard to gauge the historic difference in the two societies insofar as politics is concerned.

For me, however, it is almost a miracle that millions of Afghans seem to have developed a liking for elections and regard the exercise as an efficient means of impacting the decision-making process.

If British and American democracies needed 20 to 30 elections to reach their level of maturity, should we not give the Afghans time and space to go through at least 10 elections?

A survey of the issues raised, the platforms presented, the speeches made and the debates conducted reveals a quality that this writer, for one, did not expect to witness so soon in Afghanistan.

It seemed that the whole of Afghanistan, especially the urban areas, were turned into a giant-size school of political practice. By one unscientific survey, more than 100 new words and phrases referring to politics in an open society have entered the average Afghan’s vocabulary.

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Equally impressive was the level of participation by women both as candidates and as voters. To be sure, the results are unlikely to be commensurate with the energy and commitment deployed by Afghan women. But a solid foundation has been laid for further progress.

The election campaign also witnessed the raising of a vital issue of a possible reform to replace the presidential system imposed by the US with a parliamentary one. Afghanistan had never had an over-centralized system of government if only because of its rich religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity which is best reflected by a parliamentary system of government. That reality assumes more importance at a time that the so-called identity politics appears the favorite flavor across the world.

Outsiders may not appreciate how important it is to have the average citizen in a society used to deference and fascination with the hierarchy to publicly express anger and/or scorn against any grandee in a position of power.

Afghan democracy is a young plant (or setak in Persian Afghan) threatened by strong adverse winds. The fact that it is still standing and growing may indicate a profound change in the socio-cultural configuration of a society emerging from decades of confusion, violence and war.

The latest elections will not solve Afghanistan’s problems ranging from tribalism to systemic corruption. But these elections could strengthen those institutions that, if made effectively accountable to the people, would be able to shape the policies needed to do so.

The parliamentary election could also be regarded as a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential election which could speed up Afghanistan’s march towards a better future. Keep fingers cross!

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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