Approaching the End of the Beginning

September 18, 2005 is set for parliamentary elections in Afghanistan. Long awaited democratic process preparation conclusion is in sight. With the culmination of this last step in democratic exercise, Afghanistan will officially join a community of nations that call themselves democracies. In Afghan democracy, elected officials whose actions would be regulated by law would rule the country. These would include in addition to the executive that consists of the President and his team and a Judiciary, a 249 member house of representatives or Wolusi Jirga, a Senate called Mishrano Jirga, whose members would be two third elected by the people (one from each of the 34 provincial councils) and one third appointed by the president, and also district, Woluswali, and village councils.

Legend has it that an Afghan politician of yore was asked which course should the country take for progress: depend on agriculture or industry? Allegedly, the politician had said: “Neither; Afghanistan should remain neutral!”

Now it seems that a question on the same line might come up to entertain inquisitive minds: For a new Afghanistan that is being built on the ashes of a quarter century of war, which would prove more effective: a democratic system or any alternative thereof? It is probable that the politician of yore would shout from his grave: “Neither; Afghanistan needs to remain Islamic!”

The above point to the complexity of the process of democratization in an old culture mostly based on religion and tradition rather than political evolution based on education. Now that the second question has been answered for the country with the help of thousands of international and allied forces and the blessings of the big brother, testing time is fast approaching.

Afghanistan’s experiment with democratic elections was a positive undertaking with unprecedented results when the nation voted to elect its first ever president. The process was difficult and the path dangerous, but the valorous Afghans traversed it with determination fueled by hope and optimism and a great desire for defeating odds and rejecting reaction. The experiment was not flawless; there were many excesses, some irregularities, threats by extremists and enemies of Afghanistan. Yet the result lit a light at the end of a tunnel leading out of the Afghan quagmire of many years.

That experiment however, produced one elected official. The second round, which is dealing with implementing of democratic process at the grassroots will elect all members to a National Assembly called Wolusi Jirga, two third of the members to the Senate, called Mishrano Jirga, and all members of the provincial and district/village councils. This is the greatest democratic undertaking in the history of the country. It is complex because it deals with thousands of candidates who have opted to run for office in this war torn country. It is complex because the process has to meet directives of the new Afghan Constitution, one of the most progressive in its history, and abide by election law that was drawn by the government prior to elections. It is complex, because in this traditional society a radical attempt is made to use law for fighting reaction and injustice specifically regarding women. It is complex because in this country illiteracy is high, enemies of progress are many, and both local and international insurgents including the Al-Qaida and other extremists are armed and active. It is complex because certain foreign interests within the region and elsewhere are involved. It is complex because the process takes place under the threat of an ongoing insurgency, armed attacks on officials, candidates and government military and its allies.

Terror has spread its black wings over the whole process of democracy because it sees its demise in the success of the experiment undertaken in Afghanistan. Candidates, men and women, around 6000 in number, are poised to attempt a so called election campaign in a country where illiteracy is higher than 80 percent and mass media has little experience of dealing with election campaigns in an unbiased way providing equal time and coverage to all candidates. Although a Joint Election Management Body, composed of national and united nations officials has drawn guidelines for campaign measures over the mass media determining time and frequency of campaign propaganda, it is hard to imagine that all would be able to benefit or use the guideline properly. The JEMB has worked with a huge budget that it still found inadequate for its functioning. But its task has been enormous. One example of the enormity of this task can be guessed when you think of dealing with paperwork, ballot papers and stationary required for at least twelve million voters in a vast country with a 250,000 square mile area and limited number of roads and communication facilities. JEMB has to operate at least 6000 polling stations in the whole country. The polling stations will be looked after for their security by 25,000-strong Afghan National Army, 50,000-strong Afghan police, 20,000 Coalition Forces of which 20,000 are US troops, as well as an additional 8500 NATO and ISAF forces. A recent arrangement calls for half a dozen police inside each polling station. This should ensure full security of the election exercise in Afghanistan. But to show the difficult job JEMB has in front of it, imagine yourself as an illiterate voter in a remote Afghan village who attends the polling station and has a ballot sheet with hundreds of names of candidates on it. Now imagine the need for JEMB to provide a ballot sheet to you which should have not only the names of the candidates, but also their clear photographs and symbols.

On the other hand, the candidates include quite a number of warlords, former warlords, former extremist leftist and Jihadi party members, who with or without campaign propaganda already have established notoriety. Parties and or armed groups support some of these and some have the backing of illicit traffickers of drugs. The law prohibiting such elements can easily be circumvented as there are no clear definitions of warlords, or war crimes and criminals and even if there were such definitions, no one as yet has been convicted in Afghanistan by a court of law of any of these crimes.

A recent report had it that Golabzoi and Tanai two figures from a dark past of the era of communist regime are also back in southeastern Afghanistan, directly or indirectly taking part in parliamentary elections. They both enjoy notoriety and are known to the Afghan public more than some of the selfless and able candidates with no tie to any interest group.

The burden of the hard campaign by women to gain their rightful place in political process, besides some legal help in the form of guaranteed quota of membership in the Afghan parliament at many levels, now lies solely on women themselves. This is a difficult task put on the shoulders of women who still suffer gravely from prejudicial treatment due to tradition. Women definitely need help in carrying out their most important campaign in this most important era in their history in Afghan society or anywhere for that purpose. Afghan women at this stage also represent the rights of women the world over.

The government of President Karzai, determined to see the elections held on time, watch with a mixture of interest and apprehension the developments and progress of the process of parliamentary elections. The new parliament may limit the free hand the Afghan President has had in the affairs of the country so far. President Karzai has served as an unchecked head of the state. He has led the executive, served as lawmaker and headed, directly and indirectly, the process of law interpretation. He has made, interpreted and executed laws for the transitional period. He has worn all three hats at the same time. After the establishment of Afghanistan’s new parliament, he will be forced to take off one of his hats in favor of the leader or leaders of the parliament. He would also have to submit another hat to a more efficient and representative judiciary that is bound to emerge as a result of the functioning of the new parliament.

The new parliament with its power of limiting the free hand of the executive might prove either a blessing or a curse to the government of President Karzai. It would be a blessing because Mr. Karzai would share any and all blame for inadequacies of the government with the parliament. It would be a curse if the parliament tries to tie his hands, legally or otherwise by political process in dealing with the dire problems of the country. 8/20/05