One Voter’s 1st Person Account of Afghanistan’s Elections

August 22, 2009

[cross posted at hamesha.wordpress.com]

voter reg card election day

I waited until mid-day before I went off to cast my vote. Partly because yesterday -voting day- was a day off and I could use the extra sleep, but also partly because I -like many others- wanted to see how things would unfold and whether the grand apocalypse that the international media had cooked up will indeed be happening.

It did not.

I went to this station housed in a certain government ministry near my house. I drove there. My car was one of the few on the streets. Dark green ford rangers belonging to the national police were driving at maniac speeds up and down this big thoroughfare I had to cross to get to the station. At the station, there were more international observers than voters, but that might have to do with the fact that I went right at lunchtime and that -as people later told me- this certain area was riddled with voting stations. There were other parts of Kabul where reportedly up to a hundred people stood in lines in the morning to cast their votes. The soldier at the door did an unusually thorough body search and then pointed me to the booth. There were two -one filled with a bunch of lady voting officers in their white IEC vests, and the other, a bit to the left, the male one.

I walked in to a small room with three cardboard box booths at the far end, a table with two persons to my right, and two ballot boxes with five people sitting behind them to my left. I was one of 3 voters there at the time, and two more walked in as I was casting my vote. Unsure of what to do next, I raised my voter’s registration card and said I wanted to vote. I was dressed rather formally for a TV interview and so the elections officers for a minute thought I was one of the observers or officials. It took an awkward split second before one of the seated officers to my right asked for my card, checked my finger, took a pair of scissors and made a triangle cut on the edge of my card (apparently a large number of the punch hole machines were out of order yesterday) and had me dip my finger in the famous purple ink, and told me to blow on it. Then I went over to the next officer who tore two ballots, one for the president, the other for the provincial council member, folded and stamped them, and sent me behind one of the cardboard box booths.

The presidential ballot was one page full color print of 41 candidates (oddly enough including those who had dropped out of the race in favor of others -I had thought their mugs would have been removed). It was easy enough to spot the candidate of choice, circle, and fold again. I sort of had made up my mind about my choice for the president, but there was still some last minute hesitation. In the end I marked the box of the candidate that I would not have voted for on a brighter, sunnier day. But since scary clouds were gathered up on the horizon, I thought I made the choice that would serve us all well at this juncture. These choices are never perfect, one learns. One learns too, that the quest for the perfect, the ideal -as I. Berlin would tell you- is one of the most wrong-headed and dangerous of quests ever.

Then came the four pages, 530-plus provincial council candidate ballot. What a confused mess. I knew the person I was voting for, but had forgotten her ballot number. It took me a good five minutes to look through the four pages and find her picture and name. I made a ’swad sahih’ -tick mark- and folded this too. Then I went over and dropped these in the two designated ballot boxes indicated by green and orange sign papers.
There were some tense looking people sitting on chairs a distance away from the ballot boxes. I told myself these could only be volunteer observers working for one of the campaigns. Everyone looked less excited than I had thought, but I was filled with a mix of indescribable feelings -some of them having to do with the choices I had made, others with the fact of having had the opportunity, finally, to be part of it all. I bid everyone farewell and walked out into the blinding mid-day sun, and instantly started rubbing the ink off my finger. The ink, faint and almost unrecognizable earlier, had congealed into a black purple and was impossible to remove.


Afghanistan: Independence Day & Elections Eve

August 22, 2009

[cross-posted at hamesha.wordpress.com]

Today Afghanistan marks the occasion of its 90th independence anniversary from Great Britain after the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war.
We are nearing the centennial celebrations -now a mere decade away. One hopes that everyone will take this as a challenge, a deadline. That Afghanistan’s 100th independence anniversary will be meaningful, and befitting of a centennial celebration. So that when we do celebrate, there won’t be that nagging hollow feeling in our collective hearts that is there now.

Today streets of Kabul are relatively calm on account of elections tomorrow. Like the proverbial calm before the storm. One senses anticipation in the air all over the place; both of elections -what it really means for all of us, what will it bring about- and of some looming prospect of possible insecurity. Nobody believes it will all be safe and eventless, at the same time as everyone hopes it will be. Security, however, is not the biggest variable in the average voter’s calculus of whether he or she will go to vote. Apathy will be the undoing of voter turnout, me says.

The road to Kandahar and onwards to Quetta in Pakistan is arguably one of the most unsafe, going through Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, Kandahar and beyond -a kind of highway to certain death by the Taliban if you may. And yet i know people who travel the road regularly to go to Ghazni, Kandahar, Pakistan, and even Herat -the latter requiring them to cross Helmand and Nimroz too. The average person has a mental index of insecurity and a sharp sense of what the tolerable quotient of insecurity is, and within that tolerable quotient, life goes on for most of the people.

The odds, and hence the quotient of insecurity and violent disruption of voting in the 6,000 plus voting stations is pretty low for a lot of people. That’s why security won’t have a major impact on whether most people vote or not. The key variables are whether they care, and whether they think that their act of voting -which as any self-respecting economist of rational self interest school of thought would tell you, is one of the most senseless things to do- will make a real difference. Another key consideration might be how many other people vote so that the average voter in question will be pressured to go along -the herd mentality often is the key driver of a lot of decisions. And of course whether the person is paid enough, or is made to swear on the holy book, etc. Not security though.

Another thing that is made quite a meal out of in the international media over the last week or so and which does not figure as prominently in the average person’s list of worries here is vote rigging and electoral fraud. The BBC, which particularly after its sensationalist coverage of Iranian election’s fallout seems to specialize in blowing these things out of proportion, is already reporting on how many voter’s registration cards its local fixers have been able to buy. This is all a bit nonsensical for the average person here. Draw, if you will, a kind of a mental Maslow’s pyramid of “political” concerns in you mind. For the Iranian electorate, election rigging was a major concern because they are in an altogether different stage of political maturity and the prime concerns, the fundamental political debate fell right on the conservative-liberal fault line in the Iranian polity. Here in Afghanistan, as evidenced by one presidential debate after another, that level of discord and disagreement is nonexistent. Everybody is agreed on the fundamentals -security, economic development, and what will be done with the Taliban. Understandably the question of election fraud is a major thing for the political elite and certain of the contenders who have a lot at stake, which is why certain presidential contenders have gone to the brink of losing their bearings trying to warn against rigging of votes and even threatening riots. The average person, however, could care less as long as it all does not go horribly wrong. This is why a lot of people need to just chill out on this matter. We know we cannot make this one hundred percent clean. That sort of thing still proves elusive even in the us especially with the mechanical fiascos and debold machines that seem to crop up at every election season. Why, then, subject this country to the most zealot standards? Especially when such zealotry can cost the rest of us so much? Chill people, chill. Bigger things are at stake than to be jeopardized by such trifles.

And finally, voter 003907269 -yours truly, that is- is fully intending to exercise his right to vote tomorrow. I can’t quite say why except that i really, deeply want to do this; that i have felt a pang of envy every time i have seen others do it in their countries, and perhaps, because, we need to move on and become a normal country for lack of a better word, even if at the beginning it requires us going through the forms for the heck of it.

voter card and election posters

[cross-posted at hamesha.wordpress.com]


Afghanistan’s Televised Presidential Debates

August 22, 2009

My two and a half cents on the Afghanistan presidential debates of last night, for whoever’s interested:

afghanistan presidential debates

You know, of course, that last night the national TV (RTA) and radio RFE/RL held what was probably the most landmark debate of this election season and the most significant event of its type in the history of this country, with an incumbent sitting president standing next to two contenders who right there and then in front of him questioned his record and criticized him publicly. And to top it all off, an exceptionally audacious moderator who, even when the president pleaded for extra time to finish his thought, stopped him and said that the allotted time for that question has run out, Mr. Karzai, and that if you are interested you can take time in another question to return to this subject matter, and who asked him some rather uncomfortable questions, including what he had to say in his defense to those who accused him of being overly conciliatory and a wheeler dealer. Sort of thing unheard of -unthought-of – in places like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, central Asia, the Arab world, this entire neighborhood in fact.

And that, and the fact of the debates in itself, was probably the most astounding thing for us Afghans to behold. Basically, think of it as the climax of a long process of paradigm shift in Afghanistan politics that began years and years ago with the breakdown of institutions and structures of power (a kind of creative destruction, i submit) and then the shaky process of reconstruction and institution-building that has followed, and which culminated in this symbolic event of last night. A sitting president having to fight for his post with facts, figures, ideas and appeal to the masses who sat there in the hall like the jury and in their homes listening to their radios and TVs, and out there in the street in the front of the shop where a bunch of people were gathered to watch the debates with such enthusiasm it filled your heart with hope and good things. We are, hopefully, in the upswing of the process of creative destruction of structures of power, and at the tail end of the j-curve of this process in Afghanistan. The question is whether the curve will continue climbing, and the hope is that it will.

Beyond the striking fact of the debates itself, the obvious question of “who won” which usually follows such occasions:

Putting my spin-doctor’s hat on, my thoughts are that at the level of ideas, plans, ten and twenty year plans, bullet points, flow of ideas and organization of thoughts, it was dr. Ashraf Ghani’s game. To nearly every question he responded with his clearly set formula of where this government has failed, and how he would do different; first, second, third, etc. A bit too cold and far too detached for the afghan taste, if i may say so.

At the level of rhetoric, populism, and mass-appeal it was Bashardost who stole the show with his maverick, down to earth, and occasionally vitriolic rhetoric and appealing to the masses, placing the people above all, and referring over and again to their empty pockets, empty tables, empty stomachs and blaming the government for it all. He did confirm that he lives in a tent, has refused to drink coca cola (not when the elections started, but since the day he learnt in France that the soviets had invaded Afghanistan and that people were not well off) and that he distributed his salaries to pay for lunches of his staff during his days as the ministry of planning. He took quite a few pot-shots at both Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, sometimes obtuse and indirect, at others quite direct.

Karzai, to the eyes of the public, arguably was the poorest of the debaters. He was obviously coached by someone who clearly understands the American presidential debates and how it plays out, and the importance of facts, figures, and data. But that does not play well in Afghanistan – not yet at least. The result was that the president, usually flowing, grand, flourishing, and even sentimental came across as overly stiff, structured, note-card-bound, and given to sensory and statistical overload. He should have instead been the person he has always been, and let himself free from the shackles of his mentors to talk to the people and not his note cards.

Dr. Abdullah, widely regarded as the runner up to Karzai did not show up for this round of debates. He was busy getting in the last messages, speeches, campaigning before the clock runs out and there is a 48-hr moratorium on campaigning just ahead of the elections.

[cross-posted over at hamesha.wordpress.com]