February 7, 2006

Afghanistan election raises questions

    Tuesday, February 07, 2006   No comments

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Afghanistan election raises questions

This week's Q & A is with Ahmed Souaiaia, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Iowa.

Q: Earlier this month, Afghanistan held its first presidential elections since the Soviet invasion more than 20 years ago. U.N. officials have reported a higher-than-expected turn out, there was no significant violence, and nearly all the major opposition candidates have agreed to abide by an independent investigation into any irregularities of the election. How did the election match up to your expectations?

A: Elections per se in the Muslim world are not a novelty, and participation is rarely a problem in places where they take place. It is the long-term implications that ought to be considered. In countries run by dictators (Iraq during Saddam, Syria, and Algeria) as well as in police states (like Tunisia and Egypt), whenever there is an election people still turn out in droves to vote.

What is troubling is that the outcome is always the same: 80-99 percent of the votes go the incumbent or the ruling party. This seemingly "public consensus" is alarming to me; clearly there is something wrong. Because of this, I tend to be, and will remain, skeptical of any process that produces these kind of results.

Q: While the official results won't be known for a few weeks, all reports suggest that Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed interim president, is winning by a landslide. Why is Karzai so popular among Afghans? Couldn't his support of and from the U.S. actually be viewed as a detriment by Afghan voters skeptical of U.S. intentions in the region?

A: Exactly. It is only natural that the Afghan people are divided as they deal with the aftermath of war and continued violence; and if the election results do not reflect the social, ethnic, political and economic division, then it stands to reason to be skeptical of the process.

Take the case of our own election here at home: If the American public were to elect the incumbent by a margin of 90 percent to 10 percent, we all will question such unusual results and look for reasons. Because we know in truly free societies, rational beings will hold different opinions and those differences will be expressed in their choices.

So if the voters giving the incumbent a large percentage of the votes -- or the percentage is only reflective of the ethnic make up of the country -- then we can conclude that democracy in Afghanistan will have a long way to go.

My sense is that Karzai being the Pashtun candidate will win the capital and Pashtun vote which will give him nearly 60 percent.

The rest of the candidates will get the votes of their respective ethnic groups.

Q: All reports suggest that turnout of female voters was significant.

For a country recently governed under a very fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic gender roles, what does this change represent?

A: Women's participation in elections in the Muslim world again is not as groundbreaking as we are led to believe by the media here.

Whenever there is a good opportunity for real democratic process in any Muslim country, women always participated. They not only voted, but ran for top offices and won.

A case in point is Turkey who had a woman as prime minister, Bangladesh, also who had a woman on top of the political hierarchy; even Pakistan was led by a woman as prime minister for sometime.

Compare that to our country, where we've yet to see a woman even as vice president. It is better to look at the political problems of the Muslim world as a total rejection by the status quo to allow real and legitimate power sharing.

True, women are greatly affected by this exclusion, but so are ethnic groups, economic classes, and religious groups.

So it is essential that institutions of civil society are encouraged and established instead of cheering the symbolism of an Afghan woman who is casting what might become an insignificant vote.

Q: In the past, the theory has been that conservative Islam is inimical to democracy.

Is that still the case?

A: The only Muslims who are enjoying democratic processes are minorities living in non-Muslim countries.

Indian Muslims for instance enjoy the benefits of democratic institution but Muslims in Pakistan. Muslims in some non-Muslim countries in South East Asia for example enjoy the benefits of democracy.

The only exception may be Bangladesh.

Theoretically everyone now says that Islam is not necessarily inimical to democracy; but there is no conservative Muslims in power anywhere in the Muslim world to test that theory.

The closest you can get to this is the current regime in Turkey which is seen as a conservative Islamic regime, and time will tell but clearly they seem to function just fine and they seem to be even more democratic than their "secular" predecessors.

You may point to Iran as another example of "conservative Muslim government" but that again is a Shi'ite regime and some would argue that it is not representative of the rest of Muslims.

So in short, we will have to see more conservative governments in order to see how true they are to democracy.

What we know for sure though is that Arab nationalists and current monarchs and totalitarian regimes seem to be unable to function in a real democratic setting. That much we know.

Q: Because Afghanistan has never been a centralized state, the still-to-come parliamentary elections in the country will probably be more contentious and important for future the Afghan democracy than the recent presidential election. What major factors of Afghanistan's experiment with democracy are consistent with that of other predominately Muslim nations, and what major factors are wholly unique to Afghanistan?

A: We will have to wait and see. If the current regime gets an extension for their governance by a large percentage of the vote, then that could be taken as a bad sign. It is a sign that people have more faith in "personalities" than in the institutions of democracy. And to me that is the real problem in the Muslim world: lack of faith in institutionalism. I wish they had taken the opportunity in Afghanistan to build more democratic institutions: trade unions, women's organizations, human rights organizations, schools, universities, and even political parties. Institutions that would sustain a democracy once it flourished and not just introduce a democracy based on ethnicity in which the vote will probably break down across ethnic lines.

Q: How is the recent Afghanistan election being viewed by the rest of the Muslim world?

A: I do not know. Again the environment is so repressive that we may never be able to gauge the popular view with any sort of certainty. We may never have a good feel of where the Muslim and Arab street stand on public policy and politics matters until tension, fear, despair, and want are satisfactorily eliminated.

See original story at: Iowa Press-Citizen


About Prof. SOUAIAIA

Islamic Societies Review Editors

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