There will be elections for the parliament in Afghanistan on September 18. Few Canadians are aware of this as there has been no coverage by our mass media. For geopolitical reasons, the U.S. government has been deeply involved in Afghanistan since the early 1970s. But Canada’s involvement in the war and economic development has been justified on the grounds that we are helping to build democracy. How has this been going?
There are many reasons why a liberal democratic political system has not been established since the U.S. invasion and overthrow of the Taliban regime in October 2001.
First, it is clear that the majority of the Afghan people wanted the return of the 1964 Constitution, which was established in a very open and democratic manner, but the U.S. government, backed by its allies, said no. Afghanistan had a constitutional parliamentary form of government; the new constitution, imposed by the U.S. government and its allies, established a very strong, centralized presidential system of government. For example, the president appoints provincial governors and mayors of cities. Why don’t we have that in Canada?
Second, at the original Bonn meeting in 2001 the U.S. government carefully chose the delegates, rejecting those from the five major democratic alliances. Nevertheless, the delegates chosen actually voted for Abdul Satar Sirat for interim president; he represented those who wanted a return to the constitutional monarchy. The U.S. government said no. The new interim president had to be Hamid Karzai, who had been a key agent for the U.S. government in transferring funds to the mujahideen during the civil war against the leftist government and their Soviet allies. No funds would go to Afghanistan unless Karzai was president.
Third, the dominant political parties in Afghanistan today are the current versions of the radical Islamist organizations which were supported by the U.S. and Saudi Arabian governments during the civil war. But there are a good number of progressive democratic parties, alliances and coalitions which are trying to build links across ethnic, religious and regional lines. They strongly oppose the warlords and drug lords who have so much power in the present Afghanistan. The U.S. and Canadian governments have blocked their development. They are not permitted to participate in elections. Why don’t we have such a system in Canada?
Fourth, the Afghan people wanted all the warlords, drug lords and those responsible for human rights abuses over the past 30 years to be excluded from holding office and participating in politics. Instead they are in key positions in the Karzai government and dominate the parliament. They passed a law giving themselves immunity from prosecution for crimes which occurred over this period.
The parliamentary elections
Today around 17 million Afghans are registered to vote in the upcoming election. There are 2600 candidates standing for the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house. The electoral system in operation requires all candidates to run on a province wide basis, using the single transferable ballot. Few candidates are known to voters. There are now 108 political parties officially registered, but since the first election, President Hamid Karzai, backed by the U.S. and NATO governments, has refused to allow them to officially run candidates. Only individual names are on the ballot, not political identification. How would this work in Canada?
The democratic political parties petitioned the Karzai government asking for an electoral system based on proportional representation and electoral districts, based on population, as had been used in the past. This was rejected. They also oppose the present system, where women must vote at separate polling stations, and the number is very limited and non-existent in many areas.
Because of the general disillusionment with this political system, in the Presidential election in 2009 the turnout was only around 35% of eligible voters. Corruption and fraud were widespread. The main opposition candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, refused to participate in the required run off election, declaring that a fair election was impossible with Karzai as President. Karzai was “re-elected” by default. Few expect the parliamentary elections to be any different.
Canadians have contributed a great deal in many ways to the U.S. project in Afghanistan. Have the results been worth the sacrifice? Why is there absolutely no debate on this in Canada. Where is the NDP? The Green Party?
John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist and author of Creating a Failed State: The US and Canada in Afghanistan. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2008.
NOTE: This article was submitted to the Leader Post as a guest editorial. It was rejected.