Article — From the January 2011 issue

Disappearing Ink

Afghanistan’s sham democracy

( 4 of 5 )

“We have our own words for democracy. In Dari, mardum salari. In Pashto, woles waki. They both mean ‘rule of the people,’ ” Janan Mosazai, a thirty-year-old candidate for one of Kabul’s seats, told me. He didn’t think there was anything foreign or unusual about democracy. “Afghans understand what it means. It’s something very basic, very intuitive.”

We were sitting in his campaign office off of Qala-e Fatullah Road in Kabul. It was a place notably lacking in the cynicism that pervaded the capital, a place where you could sit cross-legged, sip tea, and exchange ideas with the bashful young men who so earnestly believed in Mosazai. “I heard him on the radio saying that he feared no one but God,” a twenty-three-year-old named Zab-iullah told me. He had been campaigning for Mosazai at his school.

Mosazai was a darling of the press, both Western and Afghan, for his clean reputation and reformist ideas. He stayed in Afghanistan throughout the civil war and Taliban periods, and worked for the U.N. and the BBC after 2001. In 2005, he moved to Canada, where he earned a master’s degree, but unlike many of Afghanistan’s brightest who had been able to secure foreign visas, he came back, in 2009. “I want my future to be in Afghanistan,” he said.

Mosazai took me through the peculiar math of an Afghan election, and some of the absurdities wrought by the SNTV system. There were thirty-three seats up for grabs in Kabul province, and 664 candidates. The vote would be so fragmented that Mosazai, in an electoral district with 1.2 million registered voters, needed just 3,000 to 4,000 votes to get elected, and yet would have to fight very hard to come out ahead of other candidates with similar numbers. To eke out that minuscule but crucial lead, candidates were pouring money into their races, doling out cash to voters and village leaders, paying for mosques to be built, and holding lavish events. “It’s amazing how much money people are spending in this election,” Mosazai said. It was difficult to compete without access to lucrative contracts or personal wealth. Judging by the number of billboards they had rented, some candidates must have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A member of parliament would have many opportunities to make that money back. It had become common for legislators to accept payments in return for their votes, particularly when it came to confirming Karzai’s ministerial candidates. Shakiba Hashemi, one of three female parliamentarians from Kandahar province and an outspoken critic of the government, tells a story about receiving a phone call on behalf of a candidate for the interior ministry. “We have $5,000, are you going to vote for him?” The caller was mortified to have reached the wrong MP. (There is also a lawmaker named Shakila Hashemi.)

The money to pay off parliament for a ministerial appointment, which in the case of the most important ministries (and least savory ministerial candidates) might reach more than a million dollars, was usually provided by one of several powerful banks that had close links to the government. The banks had immense wealth to disburse, thanks to the billions of dollars the West had pumped into the country. Grassroots campaigns like Mosazai’s were drowned in the flood of cash.

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December 2018