Freedom versus mutilation

The harsh reality of Afghan "democracy"

Reviewing the papers on Nick Ferrari's breakfast show on LBC radio this morning, I was stopped in my tracks by the front page of the Independent. Kim Sengupta's piece is headlined "Mutilatated - for voting in defiance of the Taliban", and the shocking image accompanying the story is the bandaged and bloodied face of an Afghan farmer, Lal Mohammed. Mohammed, a Hazara Shia from the southern province of Uruzgan, had his nose and ears slashed off by Taliban fighters while on his way to vote in the recent presidential elections.

Sengupta writes:

What happened to the 40-year-old farmer is the savage and hidden side of the election in a country experiencing a bloody war. This chilling account is the first from a victim of retribution taken by insurgents on someone who had defied their order to boycott the polls. And it helps to explain why so many people throughout the country were simply too afraid to vote.

The Independent listened to Mr Mohammed's terrifying tale in a house where he has taken refuge and is being guarded by friends. To add to the misery he has suffered, he has not received any serious medical treatment for three days because one of the main hospitals in the Afghan capital - where he had arrived after an arduous three-day journey - declared it had no room to keep him due to chronic overcrowding.

Is this what our troops are fighting and dying for? This story coincides with news of the 208th British military death in this war, killed in Helmand over the weekend. In recent days, it has also emerged that "just 150 Afghan voters dared to go to the ballot box in the area of Helmand province where British soldiers sacrificed their lives to secure a safe election day". This is depressing, and shameful.

Then there is the matter of fraud. I do find it ironic that our politicians and press reacted with fury to the Iranian presidential elections in June, rightly condemning the alleged vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing across the Islamic Republic, but have remained so silent on similar behaviour in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The Independent reports:

...allegations of major fraud at the polls have more than doubled in the past two days to stand at 550, and these may affect the final outcome.

Results so far, with votes counted from 35 per cent of polling stations, show President Hamid Karzai leading with 46.2 per cent, and his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, with 31.4 per cent.

However videos showing possible fraud have been posted on the internet, and Mr Abdullah and other opposition candidates have lodged complaints about what they say was widespread cheating. These complaints, and the low turnout in the south because of Taliban threats of violence, have dealt severe blows to the credibility of the voting process.

Adding to the sense of disorganisation here have been large-scale discrepancies in the voting returns coming in from across the country. Helmand province, the centre of British operations, has returned just one ballot box so far.

Mr Karzai's chief rival, Mr Abdullah, has stated: "My concern is about massive fraud - state-crafted, state-engineered fraud - which has taken place throughout the country. This kind of thing isn't tolerated in other democratic elections, so why should it be tolerated in Afghanistan?"

Abdullah asks a good question. The simple answer is that the British and American governments are willing this presidential election to be a success no matter what. How else to explain to the voters the ever-growing numbers of coalition soldiers returning home in bodybags? How else to justify an increasingly unjustifable "mission"?

On a final note: the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, has said that he believes the presidential elections would offer more Afghans "a stake in their own emerging democracy". Here is Lal Mohammed's response in today's Independent:

"Poor people suffer in this country. I do not know whether the elections will change that. I do not think I will try to vote again, I am now very frightened."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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