GOOD ENOUGH ELECTIONS

MAZAR-I-SHERIF, AFGHANISTAN
AT 2 p.m. on Afghanistan’s first Election Day, I was visiting a polling place in Mazar-I-Sherif when a colleague called from Kabul: “Fifteen of the 16 candidates have requested that the election be stopped. They say that people are voting more than once, because the indelible ink doesn’t work. There are also areas where they ran out of ballots.”

My heart sank. The most important aspect of this election was that Afghans finally had something to be proud of politically. They had shown the world they could do something besides kill each other.

You could see it in the way they carried themselves as they left the UNICEF tents where most of the men voted. You could see it in the excitement of the women waiting to enter their polling places in school buildings. Even the 7-year-old in the family I was staying with understood what an election was.

It wasn’t worth destroying this newborn confidence over a small percentage of irregularities — especially because it was a foregone conclusion that interim President Hamid Karzai would win anyway. The important thing was becoming familiar with the process of democracy, and proud of being able to follow it.

Yes, at some of the five polling places I’d seen the ink could be wiped off if the voter did so immediately after voting. But at others voters left with a deep stain on their left thumbs that looked permanent.

The election was remarkably well-organized, given the context: This is a country where perhaps 10 percent of the population is literate, where people tell you that their parents died “of a sickness,” and where 23 years of war obliterated most of the know-how of the Sixties generation, not to mention the refinements and high culture of a 1,000-year- old civilization.

The election showed that Afghanistan was rejoining the modern world. I’d had to get a journalist’s card to enter polling places (I’d never bothered much with credentials on past trips here, and it had never been a problem). Once I was inside, observers asked for my name and newspaper. The people writing down voter-card numbers, handing out the paper ballots and collecting them in big plastic storage containers were courteous and well-organized. Besides some pretty aggressive pushing by women eager to enter one polling place, I didn’t see any hint of violence.

Women’s turnout was a mild disappointment. I’d heard estimates that women made up 48 percent of registrations in the northern provinces, but at the two schools I visited an hour before the polls closed, women made up 39 percent of those who had cast ballots. I heard that the final tally at the school where the morning had been marred by shoving was 45 percent.

But given that women have never voted at all here, this is pretty good. In Yemen, a similar society where women have been voting since 1990, 44 percent of the 2003 voters were female.

The Afghan election is important for another reason. In a society weak on processes, organization and independent thinking, used to relying on custom and hereditary privilege, following electoral procedures points the way to new ways of thinking and acting. A society that can vote with a lot of international help can eventually organize itself to follow rational order and the rule of law in other aspects of life.

Large and small signs of such progress are already everywhere in Afghanistan. The postal system, which didn’t function at all for decades, delivers to the United States in a week (the other direction doesn’t work so well). Banks in Kabul accept deposits and offer checking accounts. Cars without license plates are being taken off the roads. University-entrance exams are being held in a more professional manner.

In Kabul, women walk the streets bare-faced, and a lucky few drive cars. Slowly, slowly, people in the provinces are emerging from the Middle Ages. Even in Afghanistan’s poorest province, Ghor, safe water is available from wells provided by foreign aid, and the appalling roads are being improved even now.

The Afghans are a bright, energetic and resilient people who have suffered from bad geopolitical luck and weak forms of social organization. They badly want to improve their lives and offer their children the opportunity to participate in the larger world. Obviously they need money — ours, and that of other rich countries — to reconstruct their infrastructure. But just as important is their need for the time and security to stumble along to better ways of doing things themselves.

Ann Marlowe is a New York-based writer.

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