World Watches As Afghanistan Votes

Low voter turnout in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections today could lead to the death of America’s democracy project there.

After weeks of intense door-to-door campaigning, and after months of preparation, Afghan politicians hoping to enter into parliament are ready for the electoral competition. The question is whether Afghan themselves are ready to stand in line to cast their ballots.

Electoral democracy in Afghanistan has always been a hard sell, even after Mullah Omar and Company were driven from power nine years ago. Yet the underpinnings of democracy itself have actually been present throughout the country’s history. Historically, Afghans would express their daily grievances to tribal leaders, who would then convene a small jirga (or conference) to address the problem and find a solution. That practice still goes on in villages across Afghanistan to this day. But risking one’s life just to vote for an official who will probably turn corrupt is a whole different story. And unfortunately, after last year’s fraud ridden presidential election, when close to one third of the votes were disqualified, electoral democracy only weakened as a concept.

There is some bright news, however. This year, 2,500 candidates are squaring off against one another for just 249 seats in the lower house of parliament. That, in and of itself, is a great indication of electoral democracy. The fact that some Afghans would rather use the political system is a pretty good sign of how far Afghanistan has come from Taliban rule just a decade ago. In fact, there are reports of semi-independent Taliban commanders participating in the process as well.

But all the candidates in the world won’t do any good if the Afghan people haven’t any faith in these elections. With the Taliban threatening voters and candidates alike, and with intimidation dominating the environment, millions of Afghans may choose to stay away for their own safety. Others, however, will undoubtedly march to the polls and weather the storm.

All in all, the United States and its NATO coalition partners would be wise not to expect too much from today’s election. Ballot stuffing will occur in certain provinces; casted votes will be “lost” in transition to headquarters; violence will target Afghan civilians and election workers; volunteers will be kidnapped; and warlords will probably defeat legitimate candidates who truly want to make a difference. In other words, a lot of things will go wrong, even in the best of circumstances. But the election will have gone forward, and democracy will have played out despite a volatile climate.

If all expectations are met, the United States may be able to use the momentum that the elections provide to the advantage of future coalition operations. But if the contest is less than desirable; if Afghans refuse to vote or if hundreds lose their lives, then it will be yet another dagger in the heart of Washington’s Afghan project.