Another Country, Another Election

Well, there has been an election in Afghanistan and (surprise, surprise) tensions have risen about large-scale fraud. We have just been through an exercise in Iran whose repercussions are still being visited on the dissidents locked up in jails. And last year there was an election in Kenya in which thousands of people were made homeless in inter-tribal warfare.

Kenya? Really? Yes, and already forgotten. Time to move on to the next election. What’s going on folks? Is there really no need to figure out what happened in Kenya? What happened in Iran? No need to pay heed to the mud flying in Pakistan where tattletales are spilling the beans that virtually every election has been fixed (as if people did not know already)? Not only that; political parties have been manufactured and thieves bought and paid off to populate them. Should any of this cause someone to think that something might not be quite right in the Cuckooland of governance?

This is the blindness caused by ideology. It is just like the faith in the magic of the free market that is always supposed to get everything right. The same blind faith that prevented everyone from taking note of all the bubbles that were inflating and popping till the entire financial world collapsed in a heap. And now people ask themselves: What were we thinking?

These ideological blinders have serious effects – people get hurt, people are put in jail, people die. The Great Depression of the 1930s caused lost jobs around the world and the power void it created led to the Second World War in which more that fifty million people died. FIFTY MILLION.

Isn’t it time to think why these kinds of elections don’t work in some countries instead of blithely moving from one election to the next? Isn’t there a need to realize that at times elections make things a whole lot worse?

What was the logic of holding an election in fractured, war-torn, foreign-occupied Afghanistan at this time? I understand the American government went into Afghanistan to rebuild it. I know there was a “Transition Initiative” with the goals of developing economic and social infrastructure and fostering democratic governance. But are elections the only way of fostering democratic governance in a country that is fast receding into chaos and anarchy? Is it because the Americans know of no other way of fostering democratic governance?

Surely there must be some indigenous institutions and mechanisms in tribal and ethnically diverse societies that could provide alternative ways to build consensus. Has there been any effort to try and understand if some other route may hold more promise? Would bringing back the king in Afghanistan have provided an authority (without power) to which everyone could have been loyal? So what if the Americans did not think much of kingship or kings or this particular king (now dead)?

Spain comes to mind. Two days after the death of Franco (in 1975), the monarchy was restored and the king successfully guided the transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. With high approval ratings he is still considered amongst the most popular leaders in his part of the world. An alternative could have been to call immediate elections without restoring the monarchy (monarchy being so outdated) and the outcome could have been quite different.

The point is not that monarchy is a necessary condition. It is that there are times and places where an externally determined objective implemented mechanically can be seriously counter-productive and can set back the process of recovery and reconciliation. It is easy to forget that elections are divisive and need a cohesive society to absorb its strains and work. The point is also that there are indigenous traditions that cannot just be cast aside because elections are the only modern route to political governance just as the free market is the only modern mode of economic governance.

Well, the market has imploded and the state has to step in to pick up the pieces. If one looks at the evidence in many developing countries, “pure” democratic governance has also been imploding. It is time to sift through the evidence, to reckon with the experience, to revisit the countries where intelligent adaptation of the democratic form has yielded much more stable outcomes. It is also time to explain the (Indian) exception instead of assuming that it is the norm that could be painlessly replicated in every other country.

It is time to take off the ideological blinders. It is time to put on the thinking cap.


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6 Responses to “Another Country, Another Election”

  1. RadicalRoyalist Says:

    You are certainly right: the return of the Afghan King would have been a better solution than giving a thug like Karzai a presidential chair.

    But the Americans prevented the re-establishing of the Afghan Monarchy. On 20th August 2009 The Christian Science Monitor wrote:

    “The tragic mistake, which we warned against, was in eliminating the Afghan monarchy from a ceremonial role in the new Afghan Constitution. Nearly two thirds of the delegates to the loya jirga in 2002 signed a petition to make the aging King Zaher Shah the interim head of state, and only massive US interference behind the scenes in the form of bribes, secret deals, and arm twisting got the US-backed candidate for the job, Hamid Karzai, installed instead.

    “The same US and UN policymakers then rode shotgun over a constitutional process that eliminated the monarchy entirely. This was the Afghan equivalent of the 1964 Diem Coup in Vietnam: afterward, there was no possibility of creating a stable secular government. While an Afghan king could have conferred legitimacy on an elected leader in Afghanistan, without one, an elected president is on a one-legged stool.”

    And a leftwing blogger (I can provide the URL if you wish) said:

    “Even the U.S.’s hand-picked delegates refused to give a single vote for Karzai as chairman of the Interim Administration. The large majority voted for Abdul Satar Sirat, “who represented the Afghans who wanted a constitutional monarchy as they had under the 1964 Constitution,” Warnock has written. The threats from the U.S. to withdraw all funding for the future government led the conference to reluctantly reverse itself and agree to choose Karzai. It was the end of any genuine commitment to democracy from the U.S.

    “Instead of a constitutional monarchy, with government by a parliament, Afghanistan got a Republic with almost all the power held by the president. To virtually ensure that there was no check on the powers of the president …”

    Last year on my blog I had reflected on Kenya which was on the brink of a civil war. And the danger is not banned. The violence can re-satart at any moment.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      RR: Thanks for the detailed information. One thing is quite clear – the US had no real interest in the reconstruction of Afghanistan; it just wanted its own puppet in place to pursue whatever it considered its strategic interests. This just repeats the pattern of US interventions in many other countries.

      On the role of a monarchy without power, many people underestimate its contribution to social stability and continuity. Most people also do not realize that many countries in Europe that remained stable parliamentary democracies also retained their monarchies. By contrast, most of the East European countries that abolished their monarchies drifted into authoritarian regimes. In Asia, Japan retained its monarchy and in Thailand the king has often mediated the harsh conflict between political parties. Also, the one country that came out least politically scarred by British colonialism, Malaysia, retained its Sultans and worked out an ingenious system to make each Sultan the king by rotation. This is what I meant by farsightedly adapting the democratic form to indigenous traditions that merited the respect and loyalty of local populations.

  2. yayaver Says:

    Southasian, you are correct in the assesment that “Should any of this cause someone to think that something might not be quite right in the Cuckooland of governance? This is the blindness caused by ideology. It is just like the faith in the magic of the free market that is always supposed to get everything right.”

    Why is democracy being imposed on Afghanistan? Fundamental to such dilemmas of Afghanistan are questions about the wisdom of having a democratic system itself in Afghanistan. There is no land reform or arms submission by the corrupt political leaders of Afghanistan. West is asking Afghanistan to achieve democracy in a span of years, a task that the West itself took centuries to accomplish. Voting for a candidate was still largely along tribal lines in Afghanistan.India also has voting line in the name of caste of religion, still has mature leaders and concept of Panchayat system from past. Afghamistan isn’t India and spread of arms and heroin trade make it difficult to successfuly transform Afghanistan as democratic country.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Yayaver: This is one of the two big issues of our time. What the market is to the economy, democracy is to governance: we have become prisoners to ideology and received wisdom. Instead of thinking how to put the various elements of an economic or governance system together to suit the peculiarities of a given situation we have put our faith in some ‘ideal’ model that is perfect for all time and space. But all systems are path dependent and our inability to see that is reflected in the misery and chaos with which we are afflicted. Where have all our intellectuals gone?

  3. William Harvey Says:

    The use of the “one person, one vote” interpretation of democracy is problematic when imposed on a country that has not evolved its own tradition of individualism. Perhaps a better interpretation of democracy in Afghanistan might have been the permanent establishment of a loya jirga. As it stands, even areas with no fraud saw overwhelming majorities for one candidate simply because a tribal leader told his people that they would vote for that candidate and, with no coercion necessary, they did.

    However, my brother, noted monarchist Theodore Harvey, would happily agree that bringing back the monarchy would have been an even better solution. Check out his website for an understanding of why monarchy works:

    Now it looks like Karzai will lead Afghanistan. Since I will be living there beginning in March, I can only wish him the best.

  4. Theodore Harvey Says:

    Interesting to see my brother and one of my fellow monarchist bloggers (RadicalRoyalist) posting on the same website!

    I’m always glad to see it pointed out that “Democracy” is not the panacea that Americanists imagine it to be. I’ve posted about Afghanistan a couple times recently but have little to add to what I wrote at my blog. Both linked articles (New York Times and Christian Science Monitor) are worth a read.

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