Burkas, ballots & the unbearable lightness of democratic rituals

I think it was the moment the elections in Afghanistan got ‘buzzfeeded’ (30 Powerful Photos From Afghanistan’s Historic 2014 Election) that I decided to write a short comment around the issues of representation, rituals, liberal peacebuilding and how elections have become one of the most powerful contemporary signifiers of ‘development’ and ‘democracy’.

Media meet governmentality

The changing (social) media landscape plays an important part in the spectacular rise of election coverage and its overstated representational role. Long gone are the good old days when all you saw was a guy emptying a ballot box in the back offices of the election commission in the capital city. Just enough for a BBC/CNN 60-second clip. Today, the state and international peacebuilding/development apparatus becomes visible in many more forms. I remember the ‘highest’ polling station in Nepal, ballot boxes being transported by helicopter, queues in front of polling stations and a 90 year-old lady who was presented as the ‘oldest first time voter’. Elections produce easy content for the media without much cost and effort. You have people in the streets and easy access to
local voices, you have movement of all sorts and you can bring in the pundits who can explain in lengthy detail why they have no clue of what’s going to happen after this ‘historic’, ‘landmark’ election that many have been waiting and/or fighting for. ‘We’ can finally meet the ‘state’, the same state that may not be able to collect taxes, govern distant regions or deliver on MDGs, but that is ‘listening’ to its subjects through elections.

The added value of elections is that the ‘international community’ is quite good in managing them and they easily produce many visible deliverables and an overall successful short-term project with long-term impact: ‘We delivered 8,634 ballot boxes and collected 99.5% of them for the bright future of this country’.
If I was working in the international system I would hope that I was not on R&R on election day: ‘Look, parents, you can finally see what I have been doing as democratic capacity building officer!’

Women in burkas as ‘success stories’

‘I think it’s great that economically disadvantaged and potentially illiterate women can exercise their rights and become a little bit more empowered’ wrote a friend who works in Afghanistan on facebook. 13 years after the invasion and some more years since the Taliban regime became the notorious example of a ‘terrorist state’ ‘we’ are celebrating women in burkas as success stories because they are lining up at a polling station. I am surprised that the implications are not discussed more widely: Either we accept illiterate women in burkas as a cultural fact which takes away some of the legitimacy as to why there has been this wasteful military operation for more than a decade and all these billions of aid to ‘develop’ the country-or we admit failure that despite ‘our’ best efforts there are still illiterate women in burkas, election day or not, and at least in some areas very little has been changed, despite wasteful military operations and billions of aid. Elections are part of the
‘eventification’ of development that wants a wider audience believe that a single event stands for a bigger, overall positive development.

Ask the anthropologists!

As with many aspects of social, cultural and political life, anthropologists should be the go-to resource to uncover and understand the rituals, performances and meanings that elections and other technologies of international development have.
As Kimberly Coles wrote 10 years ago about elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina:

Rather than viewing elections as a ritual symbolically reflecting or producing meaning, the insights of Bruno Latour and other scholars of science are applied to elections as a site that creates democratic knowledge and authority. Technical practices and objects construct elections as an apolitical and acultural event. However, the forms of authority and social relations created through this apparently neutral techne are tremendously social and political. Democracy and elections are firmly embedded in social practices, knowledges, and artifacts.
In short: Elections are managed in a seemingly universal way so ‘we’ don’t have to deal with the complexities of societies emerging from conflict/war that will ensue despite ‘objective’ election results.

You should also check out the work of my colleague and friend Julie Billaud and add her forthcoming book
A voice of One's Own: Gender, Performance and Body Politics in Postwar Afghanistan to your reading list.

And only a few clicks away are my own reflections on rituals, peacebuilding and the construction of apolitical knowledge in conference and workshop spaces.

This is not meant to be a review of the anthropological material that is relevant in this context, but just a quick reminder that critical knowledge on the construction of ‘peace’, ‘democracy’ & ‘representation’ are only a Google Scholar search away when the buzzfeeds of the Internet try to explain the complexities of politics in 30 pictures that ‘speak for themselves’-which they never do.

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