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Bullets or Ballots? The Presidential Election in Afghanistan 

Afghanistan gears up for an election to replace interim president Hamid Karzai. After multiple postponements due to the slow pace of voter registration and continued violence and instability, critics question whether the country is ready for an election.

KABUL

Speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in early August, President George Bush addressed the issue of the approaching first popular presidential election in Afghanistan's history on October 9. He cited the fact that, after some initial sluggishness, 8.7 million Afghans - some 90 percent of the eligible electorate - had registered to vote and obtained voter ID cards.

"That's an unbelievable statement, isn't it?" Bush said of the figures. "Nine million people have said to the world, 'We love freedom, and we're going to vote.'"

Yet while some hold the view that the vote marks a watershed in this country's path to peace and the international community's efforts against terror, there are an equal number of voices that question not only the viability and legitimacy of the exercise, but its significance to Afghanistan's future.

"It is utterly unrealistic to expect Afghanistan to build the necessary democratic pillars in a few months time when it took modern democracies decades to do so," Ansar Rahel, an Afghan-American lawyer known for his insightful observations on the relationship between the two countries, wrote in a widely commented on op-ed in the New York Times on July 19. "Everywhere in Afghanistan, democratic principles that need to incubate are being wholly ignored or bypassed."

Rahel and others point out that besides the security issue of the inevitability of escalating Taliban attacks aimed at disrupting the process and warlord intimidation directed at influencing it, there are inherent structural deficiencies which place the meaningfulness of the election in doubt:

A largely illiterate electorate which is almost totally ignorant of the nature of democracy;
Lax registration procedures which open up the possibility of repeat voting and other abuses;
Grim reports from the provinces of potential voters caught between Taliban threats and government aggressiveness;
The impossibility of enforcing constitutional provisions against the military affiliation of and foreign financing of political parties due to the absence of supervisory bodies with effective police power;
Accusations that the vote will institutionalize a presidential dictatorship, as parliamentary elections, for which scant provisions have been made, are not to be held until the spring.

All of these pitfalls raise the issue of whether the polling will really be a free, fair, and democratic exercise which will finally break Afghanistan's quarter century-long cycle of violence, and transform the "failed state" conditions which allowed the Taliban and al-Qaeda to thrive there in the first place.

THE RULE OF THE GUN
Afghans have a venerable centuries-long tradition of leaders seeking legitimacy and sounding out the popular will through the jirga system of tribal assemblies, where every adult male is allowed to speak before a decision is made by acclamation. However, their one fleeting acquaintance with anything approaching modern representative democracy was King Zahir Shah's experiment with parliamentary constitutional monarchy during the decade before he was overthrown in 1973, a move taken to accommodate the growing demands of the Afghan middle class for a voice in government. Thirty years of dictatorship and relentless war have erased this false start as a reference point for a population the majority of which was not born at the time. Even the jirga tradition has suffered heavily from the devastation of the way of life that produced it, not to mention the substitution of the rule of the gun. The only relationship most Afghans have had with authority is as fighters doing the bidding of local commanders or civilians obeying the commands of such fighters.

"No matter if there is an election or not, power will belong to he who has the gun in any area," says Haji Abdul Jaghori, a carpet dealer from the Hazara ethnic group who has plied his trade on Chicken Street in Kabul for 40 years. "There, he will be king. But this is not what Afghanistan needs. Afghanistan needs one president, not many kings, a president who will heal the many wounds of the people."

The question of the appropriate means of bringing about such a vital transformation here is hotly debated. Both Afghan and foreign skeptics call for a substantial period of infrastructure building that has a solid foundation in the physical, economic, and educational reconstruction of the country. Advocates of moving forward with the election now believe that only by engaging in the electoral process, reviewing it, and then making adjustments to it, can Afghans acclimatize to democracy and make subsequent development easier. They point out that the Bonn Conference which was held in the wake of the Taliban defeat in late 2001 originally scheduled elections for no later than June, 2004, and that to further postpone them would amount to a delegitimization of the transitional government of President Hamid Karzai.

Speaking of Afghanistan, elections

  • The problems with Afghanistan's elections, by Vanni Cappelli.

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