27 September 2010

What? Vote? Who, me? No....

As you are likely aware, Afghanistan just held elections of the lower house of Parliament, the Wolesi Jirga.   Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, the elections were marred by violence and fraud.  In fact, despite the blithe denials of many in the international community, attacks were more than double the normal across the country. 

Voter intimidation kept polling centers closed and people away from those that were open.  One of my co-workers confided in me that he was one of the few in our office to vote, as the polling station was not more than a few blocks from his house and he didn't think that he would be caught.  Even so, he scrubbed his hands for nearly an hour afterward, trying to wash off the indelible ink.  It was amazing to me that he considered this single act of voting more dangerous than coming to work on a US military base every day.  Indeed, of an estimated population of 30 million (Afghanistan has no formal census, and so actual numbers of eligible voters are uncertain), only 4.3 million ballots were cast.  Although, as one cynical, if astute, observer noted, that number only reflected the number of ballots used, not the actual votes.  Even the most blatant instances of fraud are likely to be white-washed, though, in the face of a highly politicized Electoral Complaints Commission.

Even without the rampant violence and overt corruption, this election would liable to be a debacle.  There were literally hundreds of candidates in Kabul for only a few dozen seats.  Sangar Rahimi of the NYT blog At War had an excellent post about the dangers of presenting such kaleidoscopic candidate slates to an illiterate electorate.

From my limited vantage point (I was stuck far to the northeast due to a country-wide travel ban for Coalition forces), the election was a bit depressing.   As noted by my co-worker upon my return to Kabul, very few of our linguists and other Afghan employees participated.  The reasons for their lapses in civic duty are varied: fear of reprisals; apathy; disillusion.  Another of my co-workers bitterly explained to me that he did not vote because it wouldn't have mattered; all the candidates were running for either money or power and would take what was of use to them at the expense of everyone else.  He didn't vote, he maintained, because there was no pride in the action.  He would not be complicit in their inevitable criminality.

Those that did vote, to a man, are still hiding their stained index fingers, over a week after the election.  It is well-known that the Taliban collect the fingers of those that voted, if they don't simply kill them outright.  Thus, they bury them deep in their pockets or, like the gentleman previous mentioned, wash their hands unlike they look raw.  Another stained both his hands with dark henna in the hopes it made the dye less noticeable, allowing him to claim he had been at a wedding.

There was a bright point in an otherwise disheartening election (I like to end on up notes).  Among those that did vote, having to hide the evidence of their civil participation did not diminish their dignity in doing so.  One linguist sat a little taller when telling me about voting for his wife's aunt, one of the handful of women running for the mandated 68 seats out of 249.  The same staffer who lived close to the polling center made sure to take his mother and sister to vote, strongly asserting that their voices matter too (if he was posturing for the American woman, I couldn't tell).  The pride in the electoral system is, at this point, either deeply tarnished with skepticism or hidden out of fear.  But it is strengthening, bit by bit.  One of my other co-workers, a vibrant young man who only recently received his US visa, is already researching political science Master's Degrees in the States.  He thinks that an American political degree is going to help him, when he returns to Afghanistan and runs for office. 

I realize that I've posted a little late in the game, now almost a week after the elections, and the vast majority of analysis already out there is superior in content and quality to mine.  However, I was motivated to do so by the continuing coverage of our own imminent midterms in the States.  I'm not the first to make this point, and assuredly won't be the last, but sweet glorious goodness, Americans!  Go vote!  No one's threatening to cut off your fingers!  Which reminds me – I need to order an absentee ballot…