What price democracy? Ask the brave Afghans

To understand the Aghan election we will need to re-think our idea of success

When you dodge bombs and bullets on the way to the voting booth and face the real possibility that your finger stained with indelible ink as proof of voting will be chopped off on the way home, you deserve a decent government.

Under threats unimaginable to those of us who live in countries where people can’t be bothered going to vote if it’s a nice day and the beach beckons instead, Afghans have turned out to vote. Not in the numbers that can possibly suggest a healthy nation, let alone a robust democracy, but the very fact that any of them left their homes and braved their Taliban infested streets is testament to an extraordinarily courageous people.

What makes the risks they have taken even more heartbreaking is that the candidate most likely to win is the incumbent President Hamid Karzai, routinely accused of corruption, favouring criminals so long as they ensure his power base, and turning a blind eye to his stepbrother who is awash in cash thanks to his role in the booming drug industry that remains the scourge of the narco-state Afghanistan.

It is not yet known how many of Afghanistan’s 17 million eligible voters actually put their lives on the line for the almost naïve hope that they can effect change, and it is thought the final results of the election won’t be known for two weeks – although preliminary results may take only days. The big deal is whether Karzai has made it to the fifty percent threshold and thereby avoids a run-off against the second highest polling candidate.

Karzai – surprise, surprise – has already called the election a success. However as with the last election in Iraq, the concept of ‘success’ has to be reappraised.

Success against insurgents or the Taliban means taking the worst case scenario and breathing again when Armageddon is avoided. It means an inability on the part of the Taliban to carry out many of its blood-curdling threats. It does not mean taking account of the people who did in fact die due to rocket attacks on polling day.

Success means women candidates such as Akmina surviving her campaign. It does not mean factoring in that she had to dress as a man in traditional garb of long shirt, trousers and turban, and carry a Kalashnikov while she was on the hustings.

Success does not mean free and fair media coverage of the events on the eve of and the actual day of the election. The meaning of success has to be reconstituted to encompass a media ban on the dictate of the incumbent for fear pesky stories about violence will deter voters damage his chances in his favourite provinces.

Success certainly does not mean factoring in a body count. It relegates stories of Taliban rockets hitting homes and killing innocent women and children as sidebar issues, because let’s face it, the election went ahead.

And of course success does not factor in the security required. When 300,000 NATO and Afghan troops are needed at polling booths and on major street corners, success is highly subjective.

But there’s an equally subjective appraisal possible with this election – fear and apathy kept people away.

Fear and apathy, given the circumstances, are absolutely understandable. But surely it would be more a testament to the courage of those who did defy the Taliban to praise the turnout, not highlight the stay homes. The pity of course is if well below the fifty percent mark actually voted, the legitimacy of the outcome will forever be in question.

Even more the pity, a re-elected Karzai will have no worries about the legitimacy. His 'quantity not quality' democracy will focus necessarily on his ability to survive the power of the warlords, extremists, and other backers of dubious credentials with which he has entered into Faustian bargains to make sure he stays in his palace.

Politics Afghan-style could well see Karzai win the battle, but lose the war because of the company he has chosen to keep.

Sure he goes on and on about his commitment to Afghanistan and how lonely it is as the top and how his life is always at risk – despite his habit of being holed up in the palace almost 24-7.

The reality for Afghanistan is despite the courage of its people, the ‘success’ of this election may actually be the preserve of the Taliban. Not in that it managed to disrupt the polling to the extent of forcing a postponement. No. The Taliban has shown in the past to be clearly focused on a long-term agenda and is subsequently prepared to wait. Success for the Taliban may well be that it has actively undermined any notion of Afghanistan finding peace and security through the foreign concept of the ballot box.

What a dilemma now hangs in the Afghan air. If Karzai does not win the majority of votes cast in the first round, come October those brave citizens will be called on again to risk life and limb – literally – to vote again.

If ever a rock and a hard place took on a human dimension it is now. Five more years of Karzai’s corruption riddled feeble administration on the first run or another death-defying dance with the Taliban. What price democracy!