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The Arduous Task of Electing Democracy

August 26, 2009 –If there's a conflict-ridden country holding an election, chances are Barak Hoffman will be there on the ground. Hoffman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Civil Society and visiting assistant professor of government, travels to some of the most politically fragile nations in the world to observe elections and research how countries approach democracy. The professor focuses primarily on African countries, but he recently capped off a weeklong trip to Afghanistan as an election observer with a firm dedicated to implementing democracy and governance programs. Bombings, attacks and threats from the Taliban and accusations of fraud marked the Aug. 20 presidential election. Hoffman spoke with the Blue & Gray about holding elections in a war zone, whether the United States should be in the democracy-building business and one emerging country that's gotten democracy right.

Q. What was it like in Afghanistan in the lead up to election day?
A. It's very much in conflict, and it's a conflict that the United States and its allies are not winning. In large parts of the country, especially in the south and east, the Taliban is completely in control.

In that context, we were very, very restricted in where we could go. There are army checkpoints all over the city, though that only gives the illusion of safety. Large parts of the military are sympathetic to the Taliban or are bribed into looking the other way.

A NATO convoy was blown up while we were there and one of our groups saw another election monitor's car blown up about 200 feet down the road. It had rolled over a bomb.

Election day itself was relatively calm where I was, in Kabul, but the southern part of the country saw all sorts of attacks from the Taliban.

Q. What are the driving forces behind Afghanistan's election violence and turmoil?
A. A large part of the reason the Taliban has been able to regain control is that the government is incompetent. There's really very little government presence throughout large parts of the country. How do you hold an election without a government?

There are also these things called night letters. The Taliban slips a note in your house at night saying, ‘If we see you doing XYZ, we're going to kill your family.' You had Taliban threatening to cut off the fingers of people marked with ink stains showing they had voted. These were credible threats.

Plus, the voter registration rolls were a mess. You could buy a voter card for $10 on the street, and even if you registered in a past election, you could register again. Many polling stations were closed because of security, too.

Q. Was holding the election worth it given the level of violence? Or should it have been postponed until Afghanistan is more stable?
A. This election was marginally better than not having one. It's sort of like having a choice of having your whole leg amputated or amputated just below the knee. Keeping the leg, so to speak, isn't an option for Afghanistan right now and won't be in the immediate future.

Not holding the election does two things. It says to the Taliban that they're controlling the agenda by making the country insecure. Second, Afghans have a different conception of democracy than we do, but they get the idea of casting a vote and getting a voice in who governs them. A large portion of the population seemed eager to take advantage of that opportunity. To deny them that opportunity would make people really angry.

Q. How does Afghanistan compare to the countries you normally focus on in Africa?
A. In most of Africa, with the exception of the two big messes in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, you're mostly dealing with problems of emerging democracies such as bad government. Certainly protests and violence occur, like in Nigeria and South Africa at the moment, but this is the context of a democratizing country where the protest is aimed at the failure of government to improve conditions. It's not an ideological battle or rejection of democracy. It's much different from an insurrection or civil war like what you have in Afghanistan.

Q. Is there a slate of common obstacles emerging democracies face?
A. When you take weak institutions where accountability isn't strong, and you put a good amount of foreign aid into it, people want to get into the government because they see it as a route to becoming wealthy. Certainly one of the most common problems we witness as a result is bad governance. Holding governments accountable is very difficult to get right.

It takes a great deal to get democracy right in general. It takes a group of citizens who want to hold government accountable. It takes an opposition, and it takes a media. And they all must come together at the right time.

Q. Is there a country that has gotten it right in recent years?
A. Ghana is a case where those aspects are coming together. The civil society puts much pressure on the parties. The media is vigilant and the two political parties love to rip each other apart. Ghana is, perhaps, one of the best-governed countries in Africa.

In their most recent election, they had to have a second round of voting because there was no clear winner. A lot of civil society organizations mobilized to pressure the parties to hold that second round by arguing that Ghana didn't want to become the next Zimbabwe, Nigeria or Kenya. The civil society organizations were able to keep the parties in their corners.

In the United States, we talk about checks and balances, and it can be just a phrase, but this is what we saw happening in Ghana.

Q. Is it helpful for the United States to get involved in democracy building?
A. We do know what to do. It takes a commitment of resources and time. We can train journalists and teach them how to do investigative journalism. We can use resources and use incentives to help governments that are on the right track to do the right thing. We know how to build political parties. We've done it with success in many countries, such as Mexico, which has received a ton of democracy assistance from the United States.

The problem is we tend to allocate our resources to the basket cases -- Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan. None of these countries are likely to become a democracy anytime soon because the governments aren't working for it. We can't want it worse than the government wants it for itself.

Q. Do countries only get one chance to successfully create a democracy?
A. If you look at the number of democratic countries over time, it's generally an upward trend. But most countries do fail the first time. It usually takes two or three tries. We often have short memories about this. The United States is a generations-long project where it took hundreds of years for everyone to get the right to vote.

Take Ghana, again. Ghana held elections in the 1950s and 1960s and then plunged into military coups. But for the past 15 years, it's become a stronger and stronger democracy.

While it's hard to get a democracy, it's certainly worthwhile. I wouldn't be in this business if I weren't optimistic that countries couldn't turn into democracies.

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