Ian Birrell: False hopes and phoney democracy

The dream is back on in Afghanistan, even as warlords wash the blood from their hands

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And so the charade begins once again. A state ripped apart by war, poverty and corruption promises to hold elections, and optimistic Western leaders pump in money and troops in a bid to ensure a window of comparative peace for the ballot. The battered populace votes, the results are declared and everyone proclaims the triumph of democracy in another land.

This time it is Afghanistan's turn again. More troops have been sent in to pacify the country for next month's elections, despite the sharply rising death toll. Gordon Brown said at the weekend that the "growth of democracy" and long-term stability will be the only winners there, while in the Commons debate this week, the Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth stressed the importance of the elections.

There needs to be a heavy dose of realism. Once again, we are chasing a chimera, falling for the myth of democracy rather than the reality. Buttressed by our own history, we see the ballot box as the ultimate expression of democracy. In recent years, elections have spread into many places ruled by demagogues and dictators, and there is a widespread expectation that in their wake come new freedoms and prosperity. The assumption is that casting a vote somehow empowers citizens to seize control of their country.

But it takes more than an election to salvage a failed state. All too often, behind the façade of democracy is the same rotten, stinking edifice of murder, extortion and theft. The same big men stay in power, siphoning off state revenue and aid into offshore accounts, while nothing changes for the millions of people for whom voting is a brief interlude in the daily struggle for survival. In many cases, life gets worse.

Afghanistan itself offers a salutary warning. The last election in 2004 was hailed by Western leaders for installing democracy in the country. In truth, as Human Rights Watch exposed, there was massive intimidation of voters, journalists and political rivals. "Half of parliament are fundamentalists and warlords and criminals," says Wadir Safi, professor of political science at Kabul University. "Looters, smugglers – they are all there." And President Karzai has proved an embarrassing failure, allowing corruption to blossom, giving free reign to local despots and doing deals with the women-hating Taliban.

Now the country is gearing up for another election. Afghan diplomats in Washington tell think-tanks how the vote will empower women, the young and the disabled, while James Carville, the renowned Democrat strategist, is advising one of the main opposition candidates. The dream is back on. Meanwhile, warlords wash the blood from their hands and dress up as democrats, doing deals to carve up the country.

There is nothing unique about this scenario. Three years ago, the United Nations spent nearly half a billion dollars of aid money overseeing an election in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Such was the confidence in the magical power of elections that the international community planned to withdraw peacekeepers the day after the second round of voting, despite a recent history that encompassed Africa's biggest war, its most brazen kleptocracy and most brutal colonial exploitation. To say nothing of the need to count the votes in a vast country where much of the infrastructure lies in ruins.

Instead, things became so unstable after Joseph Kabila's victory that extra peacekeepers were rushed in and fighting broke out between supporters of the winner and Jean-Pierre Bemba, his defeated rival. Visiting the country a year later, I saw many houses in the more expensive areas of Kinshasa – Bemba's stronghold – still riddled with bullet holes. Tattered election posters were still in evidence, but so was the corruption, the poverty, the plunder, while, hundreds of miles away to the east, the fighting and refugee crisis dragged on.

The lesson of Afghanistan, of the Congo, of Iraq and of many other places is that it is comparatively easy to hold elections, however raw the wounds of conflict. But there is a world of difference between an election and democracy, even in its most ramshackle forms. Democracy is when there is an independent electoral watchdog, when a leader quits after losing an election, when the courts are unshackled, when the media is free to cause trouble, when the security forces serve the people rather than terrify them. It is the difference between Zimbabwe and its neighbour Botswana. It is the difference between Iran and India. And it is why President Obama was right to go to Ghana, where an incumbent president stood down recently after the narrowest of election defeats.

Elections in shattered societies can actually make life worse. Paul Collier, a former World Bank economist and author of two brilliant books on failed states, has demonstrated that while political violence falls in the run-up to an election, it often rises in the aftermath as losers seek their share of the spoils. "Perhaps in encouraging elections, we have landed these societies in an unviable halfway house that has neither the capacity of autocracies to act decisively nor the accountability of a genuine democracy," he says.

Collier does not suggest we ignore their plight. Nor would I. We cannot abandon millions of fellow humans to lives spent in misery. First and foremost, there is a strong moral case for intervention, the human duty to help those less fortunate. It is also in our own interests: if one country collapses, the effects ripple out across the globe, whether in warfare, terrorism, piracy, migration or simply a weaker economic environment. And democracy remains a worthy aspiration, although countries must be free to create variants rooted in their own traditions.

It has taken Western nations centuries to evolve their parliamentary democracies, however imperfect they may sometimes seem. Obama says he does not envisage a "Jeffersonian democracy" in Afghanistan – a big step forward from the glib rhetoric of his predecessor. But if our troops are to remain in Afghanistan, it will take many years to achieve even a messy brand of democracy. At the end of the process, there will still be some tribal tensions, gangsterism and poppy fields. Even to get to this point will cost billions. It will take many years. And sadly, there will be scores more teenage soldiers slaughtered and maimed.

In many ways, the key question is whether developed nations are prepared to pay this heavy price; to accept intense short-term pain in return for substantial long-term gain. In crude terms, is there the stomach for the fight? Or will we just buy into a comforting illusion of democracy and, after the elections, prepare to walk away from a failed state once again?

i.birrell@independent.co.uk

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