Distance can provide perspective, at least that is what armchair analysts like myself try to convince ourselves. However, having monitored two elections in Afghanistan, I know that distance also means that one misses the political undercurrents and the real stories behind facts and figures.Hamed Karzai addresses media representatives during a press conference. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai/2009
During the first Presidential elections, Bob Dylan’s song ‘Black Diamond Bay’ kept ringing in my head. The song starts with a news story about Black Diamond Bay that disappeared when a volcano erupted. The eruption left nothing but a ‘Panama hat and a pair of old Greek shoes’. Dylan then sings about everything that did not reach the news: He tells us about the woman with the Panama hat, the Greek business man and all the other odd people residing in Black Diamond Bay, all those who disappeared without leaving a trace.
Having monitored two elections in Afghanistan, it feels strange to be following these elections from afar (more precisely, from the centre of Brussels). Distance can provide perspective. Distance is a good companion for developing excellent analysis. However, it is (almost) always analysis that is based on limited knowledge: From afar you do not have access to the political undercurrents or to the stories behind the facts and figures. You end up writing about the ‘Panama hat and the old shoes’, without really knowing where they have been, why they are there or who is wearing them.
Understanding the political undercurrents and how the Afghan public perceives the elections is crucial for understanding the longer-term political meaning of the elections. For international stakeholders these elections may be a success if they unfold without any (more) spectacular security incidents, with manageable levels of violence, with a reasonable voter turnout (not implausibly high and not unacceptably low) and with an acceptable political outcome. While many Afghans are also hoping that there will not be too much violence during Election Day and counting, they probably have a different perception about what would make today’s elections credible and the results acceptable.
For international stakeholders it is the national level and the overall picture that matters, this is probably also what matters for the key political players in Afghanistan. However, local populations will read the election results through the lens of their local experiences of the elections: If they know that the registration was fraudulent, that ballot boxes were stuffed or that the counting process was too innovative this will affect their perception of the elections as a whole and their confidence in the election outcome.
In the last elections, many international stakeholders underestimated the importance of local knowledge and the political perceptiveness of the Afghan public. Knowledge about inconsistencies and fraud were covered up by witty one liners and creative analysis (none of which probably translated well). This made some of the international stakeholders seem complicit in processes that were not viewed as correct or acceptable by the Afghan public.
As today’s Election Day and its aftermath unfolds: it will be important that armchair analysts (like myself), all of us huddling in distant headquarters remember that our knowledge about what really went on before, during and after Election Day is at best superficial, but that what we say about these elections is important. Covering-up and sugarcoating simply does not work, honesty tends to be a better strategy.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020