Changing Narratives of Democracy – Afghan perspective

Afghan Elections, Democracy, Afghanistan,

By Krishna Sharma* 29 October 2019

Bilal Wardak and Nazir Abed were both born in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul a year after the Taliban had taken over the helm of the rugged country of the horse traders in 1996. As soon as they became eligible to vote, they registered themselves with the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan. Their employer had granted them a paid leave of absence on September 28 so that they could participate in the election. But they did not dare to show up at the neighboring polling booth in Kabul’s District 9.

Asked as to why they missed the opportunity of participating in the process of strengthening the system of self-rule, they summed up their concern assuredly in one word — security. Almost seven million registered voters followed their suit. Voter turnout in last month’s presidential election was historically low. Only about two million Afghans showed up to cast their votes. Of the total of nearly 38 Million Afghans, only 9.7 million are registered voters. According to Central Statistics Organization of Afghanistan, 46 percent of Afghan population is under 18. If we go by that statistics, about 11 million eligible Afghans did not even register for voting.

This narrative distinctly juxtaposes the enthusiasm when the Afghans participated in the first presidential elections in 2009. That was the time even the daily wage laborers were excused from work so they could return to their respective districts and could cast their votes to the candidate of their choice. The second presidential elections of 2014 witnessed even more voter turnout. Reports from some polling sites suggested at the time that they had run out of ballot papers due to high attendance.

Why this complacency for democracy so early? Is it a natural phenomenon?

“The third presidential election had happened in Afghanistan exactly one month ago today and the IEC is yet to announce the results. This delay in declaring the result in itself is leadership complacency towards democracy and a ploy against the public to make them believe forcibly that democracy is a dirty game,” the critics and the Members of Afghan Parliament said recently. The IECA has announced November 14 as yet another date for the announcement of the preliminary results.

According to Professor Shawn Rosenberg, who teaches Political Science at UC Irvine, democracy is hard work and requires a lot from those who participate in it. It requires people to respect those with different views from theirs and people who do not look like them. It asks citizens to be able to sift through large amount of information and process the good from the bad, the true from the false. It requires thoughtfulness, discipline and logic.

If we look at countries with democratic experiments, we find their people persistently participating in the process of self-governing. There is a country like India with a storied history of being the largest democracy in the world which is constantly facing shortcomings in its process of institutionalizing the democratic concept at the peoples’ level. Still, the Indians rise up every time they fall to the elements that try to derail or defame the democratic system. 

There was a time when the sun was shining and the Afghans had lined up on streets to vote instead of repairing their roofs. The reason was plain and simple: ordinary Afghans were tired of experiencing the tyranny of a series of despotic governments – from Zahir Shah Monarchy to Daoud autocracy to communist absolutism to Mujahideen control and then to the Taliban dictatorship.

However, when their hopes from the democratic leaders wane, when warlords make the leaders their political puppets, when certain business section influences leadership to take an undue advantage from the prolonged war, and when corruption, fear mongering and fraud practices go unchecked how long could the sugar coating about democracy help sustain the system?

On top of this, Afghanistan has been controlled by the warlords and religious extremists at the local level where 76 percent voters live. Afghanistan has been suffering from civil war and extreme violence for at least 40 years.

There are certain people who cannot be rulers even when you choose them to lead you. Professor Rosenberg’s narrative fits very much here in Afghanistan where democracy as a system suffers every time the warlords with little or no public service experience take help of leadership or influence the provincial and central leadership for their personal interests.

It is easy to explore and point out the problems the nations face as they struggle while founding and institutionalizing democracy and the other organizations that support it. It takes not just a person or a village but the entire generation and a country while it transitions from one autocratic system to a robust people oriented system in which citizens, irrespective of gender or tribal lineage, can expect from its leaders an atmosphere for a just society.

Democracy in the developed world seems to be in retreat. Research shows that the countries with comparatively longer democratic history have lately been taken hostage to corruption, unhealthy populism, lack of transparency  and the disregard for the rule of law thereby spurring the intellectuals to brainstorm on the impact of human nature to democracy. It pains to note the findings of The Freedom House which states in Freedom in the World – 2019 Report that between 2005 to 2018 the Not Free Countries rose by 26 percent. To a country like Afghanistan with relatively young democracy it should not have been the case.

Although majority of youth Afghans are enthusiastic about believing and working to strengthen democratic system in the country, their passion often gets punctuated as their leaders act irresponsibly at a time when homegrown and other extremists groups reign terror in the name of religion. Failure to declare the results of the presidential elections in its stipulated time frame of Oct 19, also tells the world out loud that democracy is not yet mature in Afghanistan.

The two takeaways for Afghanistan to resolve its political problems and advance the nation to a next level of socio-political and economic transformation are: 1. Stop bickering against each other and collectively rediscover the potentials for the country. 2. Maintain rule of law for all and transform the warbirds of the warlords into the saviors of the Afghan constitution.

The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the position or policy issues of the US Government.

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