On Point

October's Most Important Election

by Austin Bay
October 27, 2004

In the age of the Internet and global communications, there are times history-shaping news still moves at the pace of a human step or a donkey trot.

Trickling out of Afghanistan -- at a rate far too slow for cable television's instant experts -- is news of October's most important election: the presidential vote in Afghanistan. The election took place Oct. 9, but it took two weeks to count the votes. Ballot boxes from rural areas had to be carried by men and pack animals to central counting sites. The time lag frustrated the Western media's shortsighted demand for the quick gratification of headline success or failure.

Despite the spotty international media coverage, Afghanistan's election is extraordinarily significant news. It is significant for the people of Afghanistan. It is significant for the forgotten, trampled, robbed and oppressed people suffering in Earth's various Third World tyrannies and hard-corners -- those who do long for freedom's fairer shake.

The successful election is also a significant step toward victory in the civilized world's global War on Terror. This war is as much a war against fear, poverty and anarchy as it is a war against the petty tyrants who harbor and sustain terrorists. The 8 million Afghans who voted, despite terror threats from Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts, rejected fear.

Rejecting fear is a defeat for terror. An international poll watcher reported that when the Taliban blew up a bridge north of one polling place, the Afghan voters forded the stream and kept coming. At Polling Center 217, the same poll watcher found a "veritable parade" of women in blue burkas waiting to vote (yes, in a predominantly Muslim country with no history of democracy, men and women voted). The Afghan people acted, ignoring death threats made by religious fascists, the destruction wrought by 30 years of war and the lack of "a modern transportation and communication infrastructure" (i.e., roads and telephones).

The Afghan people understand democracy and the rule of law are the keys to modernity as well as the foundations of a more just society, and they made a public statement about their own hopes for the future. It's a future where the governed have a legal voice. It's a future where the rule of law replaces the whim of the tyrant.

The Afghan vote exemplifies the "ballot" component of the U.S. global strategy of bullets, money and ballots. The bullets are combat and security operations. The money is financial, reconstruction and developmental aid. The ballot is shorthand for fostering consensus-based governmental institutions and reinforcing the rule of law.

American voters take note. Ten million Afghans registered to vote; 8 million voting translates into a whopping 80 percent turnout in a nation where landmines and the Himalayas are real voting hazards. American voters moan about the hassle of waiting in line to cast a ballot.

Let the nuanced critics of elections and the usual naysayers who denigrate the global appeal of democracy bicker over details. Certainly ballot security in Afghanistan is a legitimate issue -- but the big picture is a loud shout for freedom. The Afghan people, in astounding numbers, went to the polls when they were given the opportunity -- the first time in history they had the chance.

With 96 percent of the votes tabulated, Afghanistan's Joint Electoral Management Body named President Hamid Karzai as the likely winner. Karzai received 55 percent of the vote (4.2 million votes). Former Education and Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni placed second with 16 percent (1.2 million votes).

A candidate must receive at least 50 percent plus one of the vote in order to be elected president. This is a requirement designed to limit the power of splinter ethnic, religious and militant factions. Electoral success in the geographically and ethnically divided nation thus requires cooperation and compromise. Over the next few years, several analysts see two "big tent" parties forming in Afghanistan: a "secular" party of some type and a moderate Islamic party.

If this sounds like a model for the rest of Central Asia and the Muslim Middle East -- guess what, it is.

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