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