To the Bush bunch, an election seems to equal “democracy.” Yet five months after elections in Iraq, that country has no government. And nine months after parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, it’s unclear who the new legislature represents and where it’s headed.
I recently visited the Afghan Parliament, just finishing its third month in session, to interview twenty members of the lower house who seem to many Afghans to be the last, best hope for a democratic future. They are certainly not typical. Standard issue parliamentarians are familiar mujahedeen commanders and cronies previously defeated, discredited and driven from the country. But these twenty parliamentarians are different: They’re women.
Trumpeted as “the first democratically elected Parliament in over thirty years,” this one was planned at the December 2001 Bonn conference that followed the fall of the Taliban, and was brought into being at fabulous expense by an army of some 130,000 internationally paid election workers. The United States’ inexplicable pressure to invite those mujahedeen commanders to Bonn plays out now in a Parliament where every other member is a former jihadi, and nearly half are affiliated with fundamentalist or traditionalist Islamist parties, including the Taliban.
The presence of so many of the country’s notorious bad guys is certainly the most peculiar feature of this “democratic” Parliament (another is the new Parliament building itself, which has plenty of room for prayer mats but no office space). One international analyst reports that among the 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) are forty commanders (warlords) of armed militias, twenty-four members of criminal gangs, seventeen drug traffickers and nineteen men facing serious allegations of war crimes and human rights violations. The deputy chairman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission charges that “more than 80 percent of winning candidates in provinces and more than 60 percent in the capital, Kabul, have links to armed groups.” Plenty of parliamentarians parade around town in armored cars packed with bodyguards flourishing automatic weapons. “How can I stand up to that?” asked one woman delegate. “I am only one small lady arriving on the bus.”
Warlords and criminals got into Parliament by the usual tactics: intimidation, bribery, theft and the occasional murderous assault. Many spent lavishly on campaigns, running up six-figure bills despite an official spending cap of about $15,000 (750,000 afghanis). Many gave away coveted products–from cell phones to motor bikes–to inspire voter loyalty. Some allegedly stuffed ballot boxes, using voter-registration cards confiscated from women. The highest percentages of women’s votes were recorded in precisely those provinces where women are not allowed to leave the house. In Kandahar province, brimming ballot boxes were returned from women’s voting centers, although few women had been seen visiting the polls.
The presence on the ballot of the usual suspects–especially the commanders who wrecked the country–kept many voters from last September’s polls. (The low voter turnout, also attributed to widespread disillusionment with President Hamid Karzai, further dims the democratic credentials of the new Parliament.) But many voters filed a protest vote that produced Parliament’s other startling statistic: Better than one in four members of the Wolesi Jirga is a woman.