Why Political Activism Isn't Working in Afghanistan

Article excerpt

Despite the billions of dollars of international money spent to develop a democratic culture in Afghanistan, few understand what one politician is trying to accomplish by her hunger strike.

For 11 days now, a female politician has been on hunger strike in a small tent set up in a parking lot outside the Afghan Parliament building.

Formerly a member of parliament from Herat province, Simin Barakzai was among nine parliamentarians removed from office in late August to settle an electoral dispute that dragged on for more than a year.

Rejecting allegations of fraud, Ms. Barakzai launched a campaign to regain her seat and called on the government to review its decision. When all efforts failed she started the strike designed to cast light on the broader problem of corruption and insufficient government transparency in Afghanistan.

Barakzai's hunger strike may stand as a stark example of how far Afghanistan has to go before it's ready for civic activism. Despite billions of dollars of international money that has been spent to develop a democratic culture here, few understand what Barakzai is trying to accomplish or even trust her stated motives.

Many people see this as a personal issue, not a democratic cause says Mohammad Hassan Walasmal, an independent political analyst in Kabul. "If she is called fraudulent and kicked out of the parliament people think it's a personal issue."

Over the past four decades, Mr. Walasmal has conducted three hunger strikes. Although each one of them supported an Afghan cause, he says, he never once received any encouragement from other Afghans, even from Afghan expatriates, when he went without food for 50 days in Norway to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

"In Afghanistan people really don't know about these kinds of things," he says. "It's impossible in this situation and with this condition of the Afghans to have a bigger movement grow out of Mrs. Barakzai's hunger strike."

The key issue

Government corruption is one of the most important issues to Afghans. In the recently released Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International, Afghanistan tied for second as the nation where residents perceived the most corruption within their society.

But turning frustration into action is something very difficult for Afghans. A predominately rural society, most politicking for everyday people takes place at the community level and the actions of the national government are perceived as beyond the influence of normal people.

"Without experience with a strong democratic society in Afghanistan, people here don't have a lot of experience with political activism and they still don't know its importance," says Muhammad Hassan Haqyar, an independent political analyst in Kabul. …