The road to stable democracy is never smooth. It was not smooth in Britain, the cradle of parliamentary democracy, not in America, not in India, not anywhere.
Yet so far the election in Afghanistan has been remarkably trouble-free. Fears of Taliban violence for the most part did not materialize, albeit thanks to more than 350,000 security forces deployed around the capital, Kabul.
Nearly 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters thronged the polls in their country’s first-ever democratic transfer of power, as President Hamid Karzai departs after 12 years in power.
Not that the danger is over. The Taliban will have countless opportunities for mayhem in the coming weeks during which the votes will be counted. It is also possible that they are simply lying low until more Americans have gone home, and then they’ll strike.
Elections elsewhere in the world, in places where democracy is more firmly established, did not come off as well as in Afghanistan.
In Turkey, for example, eight people were killed last Sunday in clashes during local elections. The victory declared by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party was greeted by angry protests alleging electoral fraud. Riot police fired water cannon in the Turkish capital to disperse thousands of protesters.
Erdogan’s victory speech was a far cry from the unifying rhetoric traditional of American election nights. The Turkish leader branded his opponents as “traitors” and “terrorists” and vowed to “enter their lair” and make them “pay the price.”
Not exactly the stuff of Jefferson’s first inaugural—“We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists…unit[ing] in common efforts for the common good.”
Of course, from the rhetoric of unity one can derive the reality of disunity. The politics of the early republic were marred by a bitter Republican-Federalist schism, each party regarding the other as an enemy of the new nation. The late 1700s and early 1800s were rocked by riot and rebellion that many feared would lead to secession and civil war.
In India, the world’s biggest-ever election commenced on Monday, featuring some 815 million voters. The whole gigantic, raucous affair will be spread over five weeks and span the northern Himalayan plateaus, western deserts and tropical south before ending in the densely-populated northern plains. Final results won’t be available until May 16, when it will become known if the Hindu nationalist opposition party will replace the ruling Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which is being blamed for the current economic slowdown.
The Indian democracy is the biggest, but not necessarily the safest or cleanest. Only an intensive nationwide police effort to prevent violence made the 2009 balloting one of the most peaceful in the country’s history. Even so, three election officials stepped on a lethal landmine in West Bengal during the elections, and two voters were killed. Many others faced threats and intimidation.
Corruption is another matter. In December 2010, a U.S. diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks stated that in parts of India political parties regularly bribe voters, in the form of cash, goods, or services, before elections. That is politics as usual, as some Indian politicians themselves have admitted.
Even when elections appear to reflect the general will of the people, there is no guarantee of a desirable outcome in the long run, either for the people or the democratic process. Witness the Hamas accession to power in Gaza and that of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt.
The people can act as guarantor of their own freedom only if they are literate and sufficiently educated to know their true interest and able to discern democrats from demagogues. That is why the American Founders so ardently promoted universal education. They sought not scholarly elites, but an enlightened populace that would serve as the backbone of a sturdy republic.
Jefferson believed that it must have been an American farmer who had invented the making of a wheel from a single piece of wood. It had to be an American, he argued, because the idea had been suggested by Homer, and “ours are the only farmers who can read Homer.”
As for Afghanistan, the average citizen may not be able to read Homer, may not even be able to write his own name. But the high level of participation in the Afghani election is additional testimony to the desire of ordinary people around the world to choose their leaders and decide public issues freely and peacefully.
“This is how people vote to say death to the Taliban,” said one Afghan, who posted a photograph of his friends holding up their ink-stained fingers to show they had voted.
Afghanistan may expect a rocky road in the future. But for the moment at least, they — and the Americans who sacrificed so much to enable this moment — can be proud of themselves.