By Stephen Brown
In a landmark election, millions of voters braved Taliban threats and scattered rocket attacks on Thursday to turn up at polling stations across Afghanistan and cast their ballots for a new president and for provincial officials.
This momentous event is only the second democratic election in Afghanistan’s troubled history, but it differs greatly from the previous one in October 2004. Seventy percent of eligible voters participated in the 2004 national election, Afghanistan’s first, but it was really more a referendum on the country’s first post-Taliban president, Hamid Karzai. He was the only real candidate.
The 2009 election, by contrast, is a much more competitive affair. Karzai, the frontrunner as he seeks another five-year term, is facing real opposition in the form of his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, and also from former World Bank official and finance minister, Ashraf Ghani. Observers speculated before the election that it was doubtful whether Karzai would receive the 51 percent of the vote needed to prevent a second round of voting, in which Abdullah is expected to be the opponent.
Full election results will not be known until mid-September. Even so, the election already has revealed the dramatic progress that Afghanistan has made in recent years, as well as the challenges that face the country as it makes its halting march from the dark ages of Taliban rule.
Islamist opposition to the election was more pronounced than in 2004, but foreign troops were also better prepared to handle the violence. While the Taliban never seriously disrupted the vote, although there were 73 terrorist attacks in 15 provinces on Thursday. The biggest election-day attack occurred in northern Afghanistan, where German and Afghan forces reportedly killed 21 extremists in a failed Taliban assault. These soldiers were among the more than 300,000 Afghan and NATO personnel deployed to safeguard the election. By all accounts, they did their job well.
Afghan soldiers also played an important security role – an indication that local forces are gradually stepping up. In Kabul, Afghan security forces killed three Taliban fighters after a two-hour gun battle. To show their support and appreciation, Kabul residents cheered their soldiers loudly after the firefight. American forces also were full of praise for their Afghan counterparts. Commenting on the spate of foiled attacks, U.S. military spokeswoman Elizabeth Matthias said, “We didn’t see anything widespread or spectacular. The Afghan security forces operated quite competently.”
Despite the sporadic Taliban violence, yesterday’s voting was a testament to the broad national enthusiasm for democracy. Death threats and other forms of intimidation could not keep voters from the polls. Election workers and monitors estimate that about 50 percent of Afghanistan’s approximately 15 million registered voters turned out to cast their ballots. Even in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold, residents lined up to vote in towns like Garmser – the site of recent combat between U.S Marines and Taliban fighters where 1,683 men voted.
Still, the Taliban managed to make its destructive impact felt. Taliban thugs succeeded in intimidating many voters into staying home, which helps account for the lower voter turnout than in 2004. This was particularly true in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban heartland, where polling stations in some places were reported to be almost empty. The commander of Canadian forces in Kandahar province, Brig. Gen. John Vance, summarized the problem: “Your normal family won’t go out to vote if they suspect they might get shot.”
Behind the intimidation was a calculated political strategy: The Taliban wanted to deter people from voting in southern Afghanistan more than in any other area of the country because Hamid Karzai’s Pashtun voting base is located there. The Taliban favor Karzai’s opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, a non-Pashtun from northern Afghanistan, to win the election, so they can play the ethnic card in their war with the central government. Karzai and most Taliban fighters are Pashtuns, who, as Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, comprise 40 percent of the population.
The lower voter turnout does not, however, mean the failure of the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. One bright spot is that many Afghan women showed up to vote, a sign that they want to see the advances that have been made in gender equality in recent years to continue. Despite the deal that Karzai made with the Shi’ite Hazaras of central Afghanistan, where he is politically weak, which would allow men to starve their wives of food and money if they refuse them sex, women have made substantial headway since the end of the Taliban’s rule eight years ago.
Political progress is most noticeable among the country’s youth. Two-thirds of Afghanistan’s 33 million people are under 30. Through newfound educational opportunities and the aid of the internet, they are aware of the modern world and want to become a part of it. They do not want the old Afghan political reality of warlords, religious dictatorships or strongmen and the corruption and stagnation they represent, but rather a country of “peace, jobs and reconstruction.” In short, they want “change.” As Bakht Muhammad, 24, told the New York Times after he had voted in Kandahar: “I want change. I want security. I want to live my life in my own country.”
It is precisely because such hopes have been invested in Afghanistan’s democracy that its transparency is critical. As expected, there were accusations of fraud and vote-rigging throughout yesterday’s election. How widespread this electoral fraud was is not yet clear, but if it turns out to be extensive, and if it remains unaddressed, it will constitute a heavy blow to the country’s political progress.
Democracy, moreover, is only one step in the country’s evolution from Taliban misrule. The central government must also do its part to win the support of the electorate. If it fails to deliver the jobs and programs that the country desperately needs, it will undermine support for Afghanistan’s fledging democratic system and bolster the Taliban’s reactionary cause. Ultimately, Government inefficiency, incompetence and corruption, could prove more fatal to Afghanistan’s democratic experiment than the Taliban insurgency.
Nevertheless, democracy is taking root in Afghanistan. Politicians have had to go to the voters, make speeches, and listen to their complaints. Ten million Afghans tuned in on television and radio to a live, two-hour debate between Ghani and Abdullah last July (Karzai would not appear). Overall, it was an exciting, new experience for many Afghans.
Afghanistan is a country in transition from a pre-modern society to a modern state. New ideas need time to take hold. And though the results of yesterday’s vote will not be known for some time, the fact that it took place at all suggests that the democratic idea has found purchase in Afghanistan’s war-torn soil.