27 August 2010

Afghans want to vote, yet leery of democracy

KABUL, Afghanistan—With momentum building for parliamentary elections next month, new research indicates that many Afghans embrace voting and want a say in their government, yet they are leery of western democracy, which they associate with inequality, insecurity and values contrary to their Islamic faith.

A cross section of Afghans interviewed from six provinces perceive a gap between the virtues of democratization as idealized by western experts and Afghan government bureaucrats and its “manifestations,” which are widely seen as having been “externally imposed” during nine years of military occupation, said researcher Anna Larson earlier this week. Despite its promises, the purported democratization of the nation has not produced peace, prosperity, or equal treatment under the rule of law, according to the study. Western notions of individual freedom are often seen as without limitations, which creates conflicts in a culture that places a high value on loyalty to extended family and community, Larson said.

The preliminary report, “Exploring the Future of Democratisation in Afghanistan,” was produced by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based independent research institute.

In the September 18 election, more than 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament—an average of 10 candidates per office. In Kabul province, the candidate ratio is twice as high, with 662 hopefuls running for 33 seats.

Within Kabul city, candidate posters are plastered seemingly everywhere, even though the country's election laws prohibits campaign notices on public property and only allows them on private property with the owner’s consent. Unlike western campaigns, virtually none of the candidates are depicted smiling.

“I was very upset when posters first appeared on the walls of my house," shopkeeper Noar Mohammad told BBC News. “I took it upon myself to clean the mess. Every morning I would tear down the posters. But they reappeared the next day. I have now given up. I am afraid that if I step out of my house, someone will stick a poster on my face.”

Other news reports indicate that posters for female candidates are often defaced or removed. The Afghan Constitution requires that 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for women, though men hold virtually all of the powerful posts in the legislature and elsewhere in government. Despite the interest, many potential voters have told the news media they are reluctant to cast ballots for fear of violence. In western Afghanistan, 10 campaign workers for a female parliamentary candidate were abducted by gunmen on Thursday, according to The New York Times.

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