If the EU wants to be a credible promoter of democracy, it needs to highlight the achievement of holding elections in Afghanistan, rather than dwell too long on the undoubted imperfections. Many Afghans are taking part in the elections despite the danger of violence and concerns about corruption, and the polls are not just being imposed by the outside world.
On 15 September, the UN International Day of Democracy, Catherine Ashton issued a stirring declaration reaffirming democracy as being ‘at the core of what the EU is about’, in its foreign policy as well as in its founding principles. The statement acknowledges that putting these good intentions into practice as everyday foreign policy, in the harshness of real life contexts, is a much greater challenge than merely talking about it. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the EU’s relationship with Afghanistan, which goes to the polls on 18 September to elect a new Parliament.
In many senses the outlook for these elections is very bleak. They were postponed earlier this year because of security concerns, and even now, the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (IEC) has announced that it will be too dangerous for around 15% of the 6900 polling centres — mainly in the south and east of the country — to open. While ISAF countries deliberate on whether and when to pull foreign troops out of Afghanistan, the military and civilian death toll in the country continues to grow. Violence and intimidation of the candidates – ranging from tearing down of posters, to Taliban death threats particularly to female candidates, to killings – is rife.
The collapse of the Bank of Kabul earlier this week, amid evidence of embezzlement of the bank’s funds by President’s Karzai’s brother, served as a reminder ahead of the elections if one were needed, of the extent of corruption in Afghanistan. Tolo News, one of Afghanistan’s leading TV stations, has reported that the production of fake Afghan voting cards was bringing in big money for the printing houses of Peshawar, Pakistan, and these cards have been confirmed by the IEC to have found their way into the electoral system. Speculation about how many people will actually turn out to vote is high, but few of those who do turn out will be under any illusion that these elections will be fair.
So the international community has understandably low expectations of Saturday’s polls. Some argue that a level of fraud lower than last year’s Presidential elections would itself be a measure of success. And yet, underwhelming as that sounds, that would be a step in the right direction. If even some credible opposition members are elected to the national assembly, this will be a contribution to a parliamentary system of accountability to counter the huge power base that is concentrated in the Presidency.
Of course that’s not to say that progress from the current situation in Afghanistan to democracy will be easy, quick, linear or smooth. It will be none of these things. But actors like the EU who want to support this process should acknowledge that it will be slow and tough, while taking heart from the existence of a vibrant community in Afghanistan who want to make democracy work. There are over 2000 registered candidates. While a proportion of these is certainly corrupt, the figure also includes a number of courageous individuals willing to go out and campaign in spite of severe danger, because they believe in the ideal of government by consent of the people.
Catherine Ashton’s Democracy Day Declaration noted that ‘Democracy must come from within and be shaped by each society, based on universal principles, but taking into account the unique historic, geographic and cultural context of that society.’ This is certainly true, particularly in Afghanistan. But the international community should work with this principle, not hide behind it wringing our hands because the situation is irredeemable. The EU should remain confident that its democratic values are shared by many in Afghanistan. It can use its engagement to help civil and political society build their capacity to the point where they themselves can give the lie to the image that democracy is being imposed on Afghanistan by the West. Calling Saturday’s elections a lost cause before they have even taken place will only help those who want it to be.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.