Elections Can Change Afghanistan – but Slowly



Elections Can Change Afghanistan–But Slowly
Ann Marlowe 08.19.09, 2:07 PM ET


It’s hard to parse an election in a country where even in their most private choices, like voting, individuals have internalized the norms of the group, the importance of going with the consensus. In elections this means that Afghans will try to figure out what everyone else is going to do, and then converge on this choice. Yes, the notion of an individual trying to figure out which candidate approximates his values and his vision for his country does exist. The problem is, “being popular with the rest of my family or tribe” is one of these values.

Does this mean that democracy in Afghanistan is a sham? It’s not as though Afghans have very much of it. Under the 2004 Constitution, they vote only for president and members of the lower house of parliament, and for members of provincial councils who have only advisory powers.

Karzai’s strongest opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, is running on a platform of extending direct elections to mayors and governors, who are currently appointed by the president. Many foreign experts on governance agree: Appointed officials try to please the person who appointed them, and have little accountability to the people they govern.

But Abdullah’s most articulate opponent, Ashraf Ghani, opposes this extension of elections on the grounds that Afghans aren’t ready for it. It will mean, Ghani says, that 30% to 40% of the governors will be corrupt power brokers, just as 30% to 40% of the parliament are now. (“So what,” one wag told me, “almost all of the governors are corrupt now.”)
Ghani’s detractors say that his motivations aren’t ideological so much as ethnic. As a member of the Ghilzai Pashtun tribal confederation, he can’t endorse local elections. Pashtuns have ruled most of Afghanistan as appointed officials for hundreds of years, much to the chagrin of the 60% of the population that’s not Pashtun. If Ghani sought to end this process, he’d lose Ghilzai support without picking up enough Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and Turkmen backing to make up for it.

Are Afghans ready for voting? I’ve heard Afghans say things like, “I’d like to vote for candidate X, but Karzai will steal the election anyway.” They’re not talking about an Afghan version of the calculus that an American will use, say, in figuring that a Republican vote in Cambridge, Mass., is of little use in electing the president. (And of course, if you care about the vote totals for your party, you’ll vote even knowing your candidate can’t take Massachusetts’ electoral college votes.) They mean that it will somehow be demeaning to have voted for a loser, even if it’s between them and the voting booth. They’ve internalized the consensual nature of decision making here to the point that private behavior is affected. It’s hard for a Westerner to grasp, but the issue has to do with the terrible fragility of the self here.

Afghanistan is still a traditional, completely family- and group-centered society, where the individual is a mere sketch. Think about the many ways Americans or Europeans or Japanese identify themselves, in roles like “soccer mom,” “trout fisherman,” “soloist in the church choir,” “activist for gay marriage” or “amateur photographer.” None of this exists in Afghanistan, nor do any local equivalents, save among the tiny group of Afghan elites who have lived much of their lives overseas.

This is to say that civil society barely exists. Afghans define themselves as family members, Sunni or Shia Muslims, professionals of one sort or another, members of a tribe or ethnic group, and, in a very few cases, as artists or writers or musicians. But if you try to define how one 35-year-old Tajik physician living in Kabul with his wife and four kids differs from another, it’s more likely to be by way of an objective fact ( “brother was killed by the Taliban;” “sister is married to an Afghan diplomat in Germany”) rather than by more subjective traits (“you’ll get along with him; he’s also a huge jazz fan”).

Yet at the same time, each Afghan views himself as an exception. No one wants to stand in line “like everyone else;” no one wants to blow the whistle, no one wants to stand up for any principle unless he or she is almost certain that almost everyone else agrees with him or her. Everyone throws their trash out the car window because no one thinks about the implications of generalizing his behavior. We’re a long way from the categorical imperative, the idea that we should act as we would have others act.

One of the assumptions of democracy we barely notice anymore is that my vote counts for neither more nor less than yours. When Afghans complain that this presidential election is rigged, their implicit argument isn’t that of the Iranian post-election protestors, who asked that each person’s vote be counted. Afghans each think their own votes should be counted more than their fellow voters.

Ashraf Ghani is the smartest analyst of Afghan society I’ve met. “From the beginning of Islam,” he told me in an interview on Aug. 5, “we have not managed to solve the problem of succession.” He is right not only about the horrifically violent histories of just about every great Islamic dynasty from the Timurids to the Il Khans to the Ottomans to the Mughals, but also about Afghanistan, where no ruler has peacefully transferred power to a successor in over a hundred years.

It’s the same civil-society deficit at play. There is nothing beyond prayer and power, nothing between religion and the state. So there is no centripetal force to hold society together while a succession occurs. Yes, it’s about Islam and other fundamentalisms too. If all the answers are in one book, intellectual curiosity is bound to be stifled. If life centers around prayer, why bother to cultivate other gardens? The same is true for the traditional Judaism of the medieval ghettos. Jews did not become renowned for their contributions to science, literature, music and business until they freed themselves from their own fundamentalism.

Ghani said to me, “legitimacy in Afghanistan is a process, not an event.” He meant that direct elections aren’t a panacea. But his words can be taken a different way. Democracy may be habit forming, and if so, the habit has to start sometime.

On a deeper level, the act of voting is likely to change the way Afghans deliberate and choose. Eventually it will sink in that voting is a decision you make by yourself. Once you’re used to making this choice individually, you may start to make other life choices individually–what work to pursue, who to marry. Faced with a definite choice, you may emerge from the miasma in which you live. Today most Afghans inhabit a cloud of vague notions and suppositions, out of which the question, “How far is it from here?” is answered with “Very far!,” and asking for statistics, even from a bank manager, is likely to be disappointing. Voting enforces precise habits of mind; it leads to surveys and record-keeping.

Ghani points to the many long-standing democracies in South America that are still fraught with corruption and poverty as backing for his argument that dealing with those problems comes before governance issues. But of course we don’t know how Colombia or Mexico or Venezuela would look if they had had a Ghani as president in the 19th century alongside very limited voting.

Ghani also said, “democracy is a means, not an end.” But I think he is wrong. Voting is a route to an enlargement of the individual self. Voting creates private mental spaces big enough for citizenship. That’s why people should do it as often as possible. And that’s why people who become accustomed to it will find it worth dying for, as we’ve just seen in Iran.

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