Democracy: A Tale of Two Cities pt. 2: Kabul

Afghanistan’s first round of elections took place on 5th April 2014. An unprecedented 8 million people- men and women alike- came out to cast their vote, despite Taliban threats. As there was no clear majority, the elections went into a runoff vote on 14th June to determine if the next president would be Abdullah Abdullah, former Minister of Foreign Affairs (and warlord from the Northern Alliance) or Dr. Ashraf Ghani, former Minister of Finance and founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness, which focuses on rebuilding failed states (this election should have been a no-brainer, right?). The ensuing months were at first a heated race, dwindling down to a stumbling not-quite finish.  Both sides were of fraud, and an audit of the votes was necessary.  Abdullah Abdullah protested and withdrew from the recount process so many times that his name became synonymous with a joke about Gul Marjan, a village girl, who refused all potential suitors, until she died an old maid. “Gul Marjan ye nemanee.” The months prior to the entire election process were fraught with violence and terror, with devastating attacks on restaurants, guesthouses, and hospitals. The months during the election recount slog were also peppered with violence as well; however, by the time Afghanistan limped over the democratic finish line, there seemed to be no fight left for aggression.

After recounting first 10%, then 20%, then 100% of the ballots, eliminating about a million as fraudulent, Ghani surprised nobody by winning over 55% of the vote.  I don’t know what I can say about Abdullah.  As an outsider, I was so unimpressed at his whining and withdrawing and threats of running a parallel government.  Even up to the very last day, he threatened to boycott the actual inauguration, as his demands that the official numerical results of the final count be kept secret from the public were not met.  In the end, a tragic compromise was reached: the winner would become President, the loser would become Chief Executive, a post which would eventually transition into Prime Minister.  The IEC (Independent Election Committee) had to make an outrageous number of concessions, including giving powerful cabinet positions to both candidates’ cronies, no matter what the Presidential outcome.  So what was the point of the election at all?  The point was that at the very least, Afghanistan got to choose.  The people of Afghanistan got to let their voices be heard.  Twice.  (and then wait, and wait, and wait, and endure, and talk about nothing else but the election).

September 28th marked Afghanistan’s first ever democratic transfer of power, and instead of the customary celebratory pickup trucks full of AK47s and testosterone, Kabul heaved a great sigh of relief, and slept in late on the inauguration day public holiday. A friend, who has been in country for several years, mused that the people were simply too tired of the elections to fight anymore. Today was day one of Ashraf Ghani’s presidency, and the Afghan people are ready to get back to work. Bring back the businesses, bring back the contracts, bring back the projects, bring back the development. People are keen to resume life as normal!

Meanwhile, in my alternate reality, Hong Kong people are surging onto the streets to protest the diminishing of their democratic rights. After the initial night of tensions between demonstrators and police, crowds swelled to a reported 150,000 strong. Solidarity movements are in force all across the globe, from Taipei to New York to Berlin to a small band of Afghan students and teachers wearing yellow on October 1st. The eyes of the world are fixed firmly on Hong Kong this week. And my own eyes are fixed on Hong Kong as well.

Hong Kong, my adopted home. To paraphrase a friend, you do not get to choose where you are born, but (sometimes, if you are lucky) you do get to choose where you live. By the greatest providence ever, Hong Kong seemed to have chosen me 8 years ago, welcomed me into her steamy embrace, molded me, formed me, introduced me to the best friends I could ever know, and gently guided me towards my dream, Kabul. And although I have a different address now (at the end of the access road beyond the second gate past Kabul University secondary entrance…. Who am I kidding? I have no address. It’s Afghanistan.), Hong Kong will forever be my home.

The crazy juxtaposition of these two opposite cities is unbelievably hard to wrap my head around. Most people would think of Afghanistan as a failed state, yet we just peacefully transferred the power over a conservative Islamic republic to a man who spent decades of his life in America, and is married to a Lebanese Christian. Most people would think of Hong Kong as a very developed and stable, but politically apathetic city full of money-chasers. And yet, faced with the mortality of our burgeoning democracy, we take to the streets in peaceful, but adamant protest.

One thing that I have learned this year is that one person CAN make a difference. Our efforts, no matter how small, combine to form world-changing movements. If a little violin teacher from Upstate New York can help bring stability to a child’s life in Kabul, then one person’s tiny voice can add to the roar against tyranny and suppression.   I am writing this from the Dubai airport, as I could no longer sit back and watch history in my home-by-choice unfold in such a crucial manner. I am on my way back to join my adopted brothers and sisters in Hong Kong in the noble struggle for democracy tomorrow on October 1st, Chinese National Day. Please lend your solidarity and support in our fight to keep our democracy and our rights! Wear yellow on October 1st, and send a picture to a friend in Hong Kong. 加油, 香港!!!

Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as Hong Kongers peacefully protest for the right to elect our own Chief Executive

Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as Hong Kongers peacefully protest for the right to elect our own Chief Executive

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