No matter what the pundits and the election commission says after tomorrow’s elections in Afghanistan, one thing seems clear : we know who has won. It is the people of Afghanistan. Rather than hurl rockets or grenades at each other, they have debated and traded arguments. Rather than picking up arms, they have clicked on to the computer and the TV screens to watch what the candidates were saying. And their disparate and distinct voices are being heard. The fact that we have an election taking place, despite all the constitutional and other difficulties and the threats from the Taliban is victory enough for the Afghan people. And, if the election goes to a second round, the victory will be even greater.
No, this is not Westminster democracy at work. But then this is not Westminister. This is Afghanistan, a land of freedom-loving people who resent anyone who constrains them. It is democracy when a person walks miles to vote, while facing death threats. It is democracy, when a candidate like Ramzan Bashardost or Ashraf Ghani can talk about issues and still get 10 per cent or 6 per cent of the votes. This did not happen in the recent US presidential elections for the any of the so-called minor candidates. It is democracy when President Hamid Karzai is brought out of his isolation chamber to participate in a nationally televised debate.
The pundits and the scholars will debate the legitimacy of the elections and its results. But Afghans appear to have found their freedom of discourse and the tools of modernity: TV and the internet, and the cell phones, that will make it impossible for whoever wins the nominal elections to rule them with an iron fist. The genie of popular participation pits all Afghans on one side and the Taliban disruptionists on the other. It cannot be put back into the old bottle again. That is the true power of the people that cannot be captured by the calculus of body counts and war. If President Barack Obama is looking for victory in Afghanistan, it has an Afghan face on it; indeed it has the millions of faces of Afghans that took their lives in their hands to cast their votes on August 20th.
A successful Afghan election in which more than 50 per cent of registered voters cast their votes may well have a positive Demonstration Effect in the neighborhood. Pakistan and Tajikistan pay heed. Let the people decide. Don’t decide for them.
The fervor of these elections takes me back to my early days as a young TV journalist in Pakistan, covering the rise of a fiery Zuklfikar Ali Bhutto challenging his former mentor, strongman Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1969. Bhutto rallied the underclasses and the peasants with his slogan of ‘Roti, Kapra, aur Makaan’ ((food, clothing and shelter). No one gave Bhutto a chance. But those poor peasants and workers walked miles to listen to his speeches and voted, despite the threats of their feudal landlords and political bosses. And they upended Pakistan’s political system. Changing it forever.
Afghans have that opportunity on August 20th. I, for one, salute their victory in advance.
Shuja Nawaz is the director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. This essay was also published at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel.