Why political activism isn't working in Afghanistan

Despite the billions of dollars of international money spent to develop a democratic culture in Afghanistan, few understand what one politician is trying to accomplish by her hunger strike.

Kamran Jebreili/AP
A man visits the tent of Afghan Lawmaker from western Herat province, Simeen Barakzai, as she continued her fast for the eight consecutive day in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Oct. 9. Barakzai decided to go on hunger strike after she was unseated by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) in August.

For 11 days now, a female politician has been on hunger strike in a small tent set up in a parking lot outside the Afghan Parliament building.

Formerly a member of parliament from Herat province, Simin Barakzai was among nine parliamentarians removed from office in late August to settle an electoral dispute that dragged on for more than a year.

Rejecting allegations of fraud, Ms. Barakzai launched a campaign to regain her seat and called on the government to review its decision. When all efforts failed she started the strike designed to cast light on the broader problem of corruption and insufficient government transparency in Afghanistan.

Barakzai’s hunger strike may stand as a stark example of how far Afghanistan has to go before it’s ready for civic activism. Despite billions of dollars of international money that has been spent to develop a democratic culture here, few understand what Barakzai is trying to accomplish or even trust her stated motives.

Many people see this as a personal issue, not a democratic cause says Mohammad Hassan Walasmal, an independent political analyst in Kabul. “If she is called fraudulent and kicked out of the parliament people think it’s a personal issue.”

Over the past four decades, Mr. Walasmal has conducted three hunger strikes. Although each one of them supported an Afghan cause, he says, he never once received any encouragement from other Afghans, even from Afghan expatriates, when he went without food for 50 days in Norway to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“In Afghanistan people really don’t know about these kinds of things,” he says. “It’s impossible in this situation and with this condition of the Afghans to have a bigger movement grow out of Mrs. Barakzai’s hunger strike.”

The key issue

Government corruption is one of the most important issues to Afghans. In the recently released Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International, Afghanistan tied for second as the nation where residents perceived the most corruption within their society.

But turning frustration into action is something very difficult for Afghans. A predominately rural society, most politicking for everyday people takes place at the community level and the actions of the national government are perceived as beyond the influence of normal people.

“Without experience with a strong democratic society in Afghanistan, people here don’t have a lot of experience with political activism and they still don’t know its importance,” says Muhammad Hassan Haqyar, an independent political analyst in Kabul. “People are frustrated, but they know that as much as they criticize the system and complain there will be no solution.”

Barakzai’s display of civil disobedience follows closely on the heels of Anna Hazare’s 12-day hunger strike to protest government corruption in India, which grabbed headlines around the globe and forced parliamentary action.

Lack of political culture?

But Afghanistan is not India. Though Barakzai has received a number of high-profile visitors and about 10 people started fasting with her on day 10, she has little popular support.

In part, the absence of supporters could be explained by the fact that she represents Herat Province, which is on the Western edge of the country. Her supporters would have to travel a considerable distance on a road with many security problems to reach Kabul.

Still, even her husband blames the lack of a political culture for the poor turn out.

“In other countries the people and the government know the rules and they really understand a democracy and respect its rules, but in Afghanistan it is not like that. People don’t know a lot about these kinds of things, and that’s maybe why people aren’t here,” says Barakzai’s husband Mohammad.

As Barakzai enters critical condition, the government has shown no signs of meeting her demands for a fair investigation. Additionally, the government’s religious council issued a decision saying hunger strikes are un-Islamic and dissuaded people from supporting her.

“We should not expect such a corrupt government to take a positive action. Our idea is that the international community should take part in this because this is the right time, “ says Ajmal Sohail, leader of the Afghan Liberal Party.

Those who’ve recently begun fasting say that while they intend to go up to 10 days without food, few seemed willing to give their lives in protest. As Barakzai, meanwhile, recently issued her will, blaming the government for her death and telling her family not to mourn her loss.

“Afghanistan has lots of problems after three decades of war and in this period we were hoping there would be rule of law, but it is clear this did not happen. She should realize this and she should stop,” says Najia, a member of parliament from Paktika province, who like many Afghans only has one name. “In Afghanistan the price for a human life is really low.”

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