TCS Daily

The Little Election That Could

By Scott Norvell - October 8, 2004 12:00 AM

KABUL -- The ballot is the size of a pair of placemats strung together. Some of the polling places are so remote they need donkeys to get the plastic boxes back to counting stations. There are 18 candidates on the ballot with zero experience and no party apparatus behind them.

Such is the wonderful world of Afghan democracy. And a wonderful world it truly is, despite the naysaying in certain circles.

Yes, the threat of violence is keeping candidates off the trail and foreign monitors on edge. Yes, the registration process has been messy. And yes, voters in some areas are being intimidated in some fashion or another.

But so far, it's been the little election that could. And barring a catastrophic attack that somehow manages to shatter the stubborn faith of the average Afghan in this process, it should go down as a successful one regardless of whether it is considered "free and fair" by Jimmy Carter and the editorial board of the Boston Globe.

The critics might want to stop and consider the context before they pass judgment.

This is a country that existed in a semi-feudal state through the 20th century and in many respects still does. Two-thirds of the people can't read or write, and subsistence is most people's main concern. For two and a half decades they've been terrorized by foreign troops, ruthless local militias or religious zealots. Voting was never high on the list of priorities. Survival was.

Afghans have never been asked who they wanted to lead the country. Decisions were always made by weathered old men sitting over tea and nan, or by the guys with the biggest guns. The last time they even saw a ballot was in 1969, in a parliamentary vote in which fewer than seven percent understood enough about it all to participate.

The whole Democracy thing is a totally novel experience here, and they aren't taking it anywhere near as lightly as foreign human rights groups and former secretaries of state who are convinced that it's all a cynical plot by George W. Bush to put a good face on his war on terror before the U.S. election. Afghans know better.

What's making it a success -- violence or no violence and regardless of who wins -- is that the Afghans are being handed a fishing rod instead of being given a basketful of fish.

Up and down the country, 120,000 locals are being trained to run the 5,000 polling centers. At a training session for them in Kabul Thursday, these observers -- men and women -- crowded around guys handing out instruction books and pored over them in the shade. Under a tent, a group of shoeless older men sat on bright red carpets listening to a man explain the concept of secret ballots and the sanctity of ballot-box sealants. None of them was rolling his eyes or yawning.

They seem genuinely excited. Almost everyone does. In the markets, people are actually talking about the vote. Some are driving around with pictures of candidates in their car windows. Posters of every hue cover the walls of central Kabul. Even one of the much-maligned warlords -- men more inclined to saber-rattling than campaign rallies -- jumped into the fray.

A Canadian political operative with years of grassroots experience was far more realistic about this whole exercise than the people complaining about it from afar. He's been here six months teaching democratic concepts to a citizenry that barely knows what the word means, and knows that applying western standards of acceptability in a place like Afghanistan is an exercise in lunacy.

Will this vote be perfect? Of course not, he said. Will there be problems? Of course there will be. But it's a damn sight better than anything they've ever had, and baby steps are better than no steps at all.

Scott Norvell is London Bureau Chief of Fox News. He is in Afghanistan covering the elections.


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