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Afghans vote, ready or not

In a historic step for their war-weary nation, some 10 million Afghans are set to cast their first-ever ballots for president Saturday.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 2004


Saturday, whether the Taliban or the warlords like it or not, Afghanistan will have its first-ever presidential election.

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It's a moment that many Afghans have been waiting for their whole lives: a chance to sweep away the spent 50-caliber cartridges of a violent history - from kings to communists to religious zealots - and to choose collectively the future direction and leadership of their country.

Most Afghans are clearly enthusiastic about this election. Some 10.6 million are registered to vote in a country believed to have only 28.7 million people - and many say they will cast their vote no matter what the risk. Yet it is still not certain that the Afghan people know what they are getting into. Democracy is a way of life, a rock pile of rights and responsibilities that people will either build into a foundation for society, or will leave as a pile of rocks. Are the Afghan people - who have a centuries-old feudalistic culture where decisions are made by tribal chiefs and kings - ready for democracy?

It may seem an unfair and condescending question. But with the entire foundation of the Bush administration's post-9/11 foreign policy resting broadly on the notion that all men "yearn to be free" and narrowly on the successful democratic transformations of Afghanistan and Iraq - not to mention the nearly 18,000 US servicemen risking their lives here - it's a question worth asking.

Many longtime observers here say that it may take years for Afghanistan to turn into something that Westerners would consider a democracy, just as it took Western democracies themselves centuries to evolve into their current states.

"Let's look at America; we didn't start out with one man, one vote," says David Garner, a political scientist and former USAID development officer with 30 years of experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "From 1789 to 1865, we had slavery. From 1789 until 1917, we didn't let women vote."

"Somehow we think that in a country like Afghanistan, a 225-year process can be completed in 10 months because we know what's good for them. You have to recognize the existence of traditional social structures for what they are, and build on them."

One tribe, one vote?

In much of Afghanistan, the prevailing social structure for making big decisions is the tribe. Tribal elders settle disputes among villagers over everything from land rights to marriages, and pass judgment on crimes from petty theft to murder. Tribes are stronger in rural areas than in cities like Kabul, but in a country where perhaps 80 percent of the population lives in villages, tribes are the second highest authority, next to Allah.

There are democratic aspects to tribes that can be built on, democracy workers say. Afghanistan has a long history of holding grand councils of tribes, or loya jirgas, to pass new laws or to convey legitimacy to a new government. But ultimately tribal societies tend to reinforce a collective identity. Individuals are only as important as the group or tribe they belong to, and tribe members who buck the authority of tribal elders often find themselves frozen out. In an election context, this can lead to very undemocratic behavior.

In southeastern Khost province last month, elders of the Terezai tribe announced on Khost's radio station that all tribe members must vote for Hamid Karzai; tribal families who voted against Mr. Karzai would have their houses burned down.