Managing expectations in Afghanistan

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By Emily Blout

Emily graduated from Union with a double major in English and Political Science. She currently serves as spokeswoman for Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA-08), Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the Interior and the Environment, and a senior member of the Defense and the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittees.

Living in a war zone, if only for a few weeks, is a mind-rocking experience for any person. But as a young and admittedly idealistic woman, being there for the first time has been a lesson in managing expectations of Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.

We invaded Afghanistan in 2002 with the expectation that it would be a short, limited war and our troops would be out before we knew it, having eliminated Al Quaeda and leaving a stable democratic government in place. We are still fighting to meet this expectation, trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and almost a decade later.

And against this backdrop of great expectations, the shortcomings of the recent election in Afghanistan come into sharp relief. Every new report of violence and fraud adds to the perception of Afghanistan as a hopeless case for democracy.

Yet my experience observing the September 18 election for the Wolesi Jirga, Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament, with the State Department contractor Democracy International, provided a very different vision of the country. My experience and interviews with officials, candidates and voters in the western province of Herat revealed a common commitment to the democratic process.

To be sure, conditions within Herat’s city limits were not representative of polling conditions throughout the country. Still, what I saw at five locations and twenty polling stations in Herat, Afghanistan was no less than the beginnings of a messy, beautiful evolution towards democracy.

Messy

Even a novice like me could tell that the election would be messy. There were over 150 candidates on the ballot in Herat, and over 3,000 nationwide. Simply counting and sorting votes on the multipage ballot was a challenge.  Still, there was a real effort by internal groups such as FEFA (the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan), the newly formed oversight board, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), and the Provincial Election Complaints Commission (PECC) to ensure that the parliamentary elections were not a repeat of 2009.

Indelible ink was issued to all polling stations to stain voters’ fingers; sensitive polling materials such as the ballots and ballot boxes were registered and traced from start to finish; ballots were limited to 600 per polling station, and a system of mobile polling stations was set up to go to locations that needed more ballots on election day. Security was top priority. Polling sites in insecure areas that had been open in 2009 and subject to ballot stuffing were closed.

“We have 20 surgeons and doctors in the hospital and ambulances on call. I have ordered all the [polling center] directors not to interfere in the process and the director of electricity and the mayor suspended,” Herat’s newly installed Governor Daoud Sabeh told me, as he ticked off his accomplishments on his fingers on the eve of the election.  “Democracy is possible; it has historic roots,” said Sabah, “but we must manage expectations.”  H. Rodwall, head Herat’s PECC, was cryptic about his hopes for the outcome of the election.

‘If people, in assessing the work of the ECC to stop fraud, [judges it] ‘not so bad,’ “ he shrugged, “I will be happy.”

Almost inevitably, fraud and violence was widespread on election day. The complaints filed with the ECC, already numbering in the hundreds, jumped to more than 4,000 in the days after the vote.  On October 20, the ECC announced it was throwing out more than 1 million ballots, almost a quarter of the total vote, due to fraud. When the dust settled, however, there was a soft-spoken consensus that the EEC had done its job. To Rodwall’s delight, the ECC had proved itself an objective oversight body with the teeth to mitigate fraud, rather than the sham commission that many had feared.

Beautiful

Despite all the reasons for cynicism and apathy, the public appeared interested and engaged in the election process. I arrived in Herat to find the city papered with campaign signs. Posters with the face, identifying icon, and ballot number of Afghans vying to for one of 20 seats allotted for Herat in the Wolesi Jirga covered every tree trunk, billboard and building. Campaign commercials, interviews and debates inundated local television.

In the face of a tenuous security siltation and new procedural barriers to candidacy, a record 400 female candidates ran for the 68 seats reserved for women in the 239 member chamber. Dr. Fauzia Gallani was one of the most connected, well-resourced female candidates in Herat, but even she was not immune to targeting. She received threatening letters during the night and her campaign posters were routinely defaced. Shortly before we arrived in Herat, five Gallani campaign workers were kidnapped and brutally murdered.

Like the candidates, Herat’s female voters approached the elections with tenacity. They seemed unfazed by the lines of burkas stretching several blocks late into the afternoon, the hordes of women yelling and pushing each other, even climbing through windows to get into the polling center.  They withstood intimidation, poor voting conditions, and long hours at the poling site to cast their vote. At the end of the day, the early tally indicated that women comprised 40 percent of the vote in Herat.

Women were not only voting, they were also participating in the procedural process. Young women were especially visible as candidate agents, tasked by a candidate with monitoring the voting process and objecting to any irregularity they observed. At each site, I found dozens of them, watching from roped off area to watch as women presented their voter card the register, received a ballot, inked a finger, and went behind the cardboard barrier to vote.

I was at a mosque in outer edge of the city when polls officially closed throughout the country. At precisely four o’clock, the doors of the courtyard were shut. The young women gathered cross-legged on the mosque floor and watched as the polling station staff emptied the ballot boxes before them and began to count.

Mosques are traditionally of limits to women, but for the election, a curtain was used to divide the space into the requisite male and female voting areas. For many of the women, this must have been their first and only time inside a mosque—except of, course, for next election.

Revising Expectations

Historically, nation building, particularly in states like England and France, has been an organic, evolutionary process that occurs over hundreds of years. Today, some policymakers have expected Afghanistan to accomplish the enormously complicated, often traumatic process in little more than a decade. With our invasion of Afghanistan, dismantlement of the Taliban, installation of a new, central government, and oversight of the drafting of a constitution and institution of national elections, we are attempting to condense this inherently evolutionary process into a limited timeframe with predetermined goals. But meeting the artificial benchmark of “free and fair elections” is an unrealistic expectation of any emerging nation, let alone one that is ethnically fractured and ravaged by decades of war.

The results of the recent elections shows us that Afghanistan has a functioning, if highly imperfect, electoral system and the demonstrated capacity to learn and grow from its mistakes.  Despite all the barriers and shortcomings, the election process continues to be relevant for a majority of Afghans; women have a dedicated place in parliament and are overcoming major obstacles to participate as voters, poll workers and candidates.

Now, after more than nine years of war and with the redeployment of American forces in sight—it’s high time we lowered the bar of expectations for Afghanistan and see the recent election for what it was: the beginnings of a long, messy, beautiful evolution towards democratic statehood.

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