Afghanistan's ethnically split ballot box
Ethnic voting shows Afghans do not view the state as a service provider and loyalty to ethnic groups comes before the country as a whole, writes Nushin Arbabzadah
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
The BBC's Afghan desk recently asked the three leading candidates of the presidential election the following question: "What would you do if you were to lose the election?" All three -- Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani -- came up with the standard response: "We would respect the people's verdict." In other words, Afghanistan is now a democracy ruled by the will of the people. Such humble words delivered with humility are just what's expected from politicians of developing countries whose survival relies mainly on foreign aid. In the motto of the benevolent international community: no ballot, no aid. Or in the case of Afghanistan, no pots of paint flown specially from Dubai to decorate the president's office.
Be that as it may, the truth is that not all Afghans have been able to deliver their verdict in this election. The Taliban, in contrast to the mavericks in Kabul, are sticking to the traditional bullet-not-ballot style of governance, successfully managing to frighten the people in the south into non-participation. Although small voter turnout was expected in the restive south, the people were not free from threat even in relatively calmer regions. In Herat, the local strongman Ghulam Yahya Akbari reportedly threatened to fire rockets if the people dared to venture out and greet Karzai on his campaign trip to their city. In sum, the security that is an absolute must for a fair election was not felt even in relatively calmer regions of Afghanistan. It is this condition of high risk for questionable reward that is making many Afghans wonder whether the 2009 election was an exercise in true democracy.
Be that as it may, Afghan and international observers were quick to point out that the fact that at least 35 percent of the population ventured out to cast their votes in spite of threats of violence shows that ordinary Afghans have matured politically and a democratic culture is taking root in the country. A comparison between the conditions in the 2004 and 2009 elections explains this view. In contrast to 2004, when the public mood was optimistic, the Taliban were on the run and neighboring countries Iran and Pakistan were well disposed towards Kabul, voters this year had little reason to believe in democracy -- let alone risk their lives to cast their votes. After all, 2009 turned out to be a much more violent year, with Taliban attacks reaching the heart of the capital and the Kabul administration and its international allies having lost credibility both in terms of delivering peace or improving the people's living conditions. And yet millions of Afghans risked their lives, ventured out and cast their votes fully aware that voting meant taking a serious risk and knowing very well that the election would be fraudulent and the candidates most probably either lying or making empty promises. Afghan and international observers celebrate this as evidence that Afghanistan has moved forward and is no longer an essentially tribal society upon whom the West has imposed democracy by sheer force of military. In brief, a success story.
The recently published preliminary results based on a random sample of one million votes tell a different story. According to the sample, the people's verdict has given rise to two leaders: Karzai, closely followed by Abdullah. In other words, a Pashtun leader followed closely by a half-Tajik leader with a majority Tajik support base. This is what analysts call "identity voting". The preliminary results show that Karzai's attempt at nation-building has failed, and most Afghans' loyalty lies first with their ethnic group and then the nation as a whole. Karzai's critics have repeatedly pointed out that his nation-building attempts have been largely superficial, consisting on throwing dinner parties for discredited leaders of ethnic and religious minority groups. In the words of presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost, making a Hazara leader sit next to nomadic Pashtun leader at dinner is not exactly nation-building. The many mass graves scattered around the country bear witness to the ethnic rivalries that followed the Soviet army's withdrawal from Afghanistan and led to the civil wars of the early 1990s. During the presidential election campaign, ex-Taliban commander turned candidate Mullah Rocketi was the only contender to openly admit that ethnic mistrust was the only reason why Afghans so easily became tools in the service of foreign powers and hence carried on fighting. Nation-building has a long way to go in Afghanistan but as economist Paul Collier argues, leaders must build a nation before they can build a state.
This pattern of identity voting is the natural outcome of the ethnicized politics that has thrived over the last three decades. And ethnicized politics creates lazy politicians who are automatically given support by members of their ethnic communities regardless of their performance, personal integrity or even education. The fact that voters in Afghanistan have opted for identity voting shows that the idea of the state as a service provider has still not taken root in Afghanistan and ethnic loyalties override loyalty to Afghanistan as a whole. To put it bluntly, apart from a small group of educated young people, most Afghans haven't moved on from the ethnicized politics that led to the civil wars of the early 1990s. The only difference between then and now is that ballots are used instead of bullets. But this, in itself, is a kind of progress.
This article was published originally in The Guardian.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 9/1/2009