It’s difficult to write frankly about Charlie Hebdo – it was difficult to do so in the aftermath of the massacre and it’s only a bit easier now. In France there was shock, of course, a kind of solidarity and, let’s be honest, a lot of self-righteousness. But the French don’t have the monopoly on self-righteousness, as the debate on Charlie abroad has shown. I think the experience has much to say about France – and the world – today.
Do I have to say I was horrified by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a kosher supermarket that followed? Maybe I do. It’s easy these days to find oneself accused of holding opinions one doesn’t hold and entertaining sympathies one has never entertained, of advocating when trying to analyse (for the record this piece doesn’t aspire to neutrality).
Last January Charlie Hebdo suddenly found millions of passionate defenders – many of whom had clearly never read it or, so far as the more famous among them were concerned, only done so in search of grounds for legal action. Of course, they had the right to be angry at the violence and to defend their perception of freedom of expression. But it was exasperating to be lectured on the nature of a paper one had once read regularly in formulations culled from press coverage rather than formulated from personal experience.
Then the debate took a different turn, in the English-speaking world at least, and I got exasperated with critics who had also clearly never read Charlie. No, anglophone friends, the paper is not entirely devoted to Islamophobic and racist bile. While there’s no defence for some of its cartoons – Riss’s latest on Aylan above all – others were satirising the attitudes many of you believed they were propagating. Like lots of things in life, it can be good and it can be crap.
Here’s my confession of a Charlie reader who gave up.
When I came to France 22 years ago I soon discovered Charlie Hebdo. And I loved it.
The schoolboy humour naturally struck a chord, me being a Brit. The politics was anarcho-leftist-Jacobin, which mostly suited me. And it is true that its contributors mocked everyone, although not equally, as some of the never-read-its claim. Not very much humour on the Holocaust, happily. And lots of scurrilous attacks on the Front National and its then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, also happily.
But, after a while, it seemed to change.
There were more and more sneers at Islam. I didn’t analyse how many cartoons and articles were devoted to each religion or set of political beliefs – I just stopped reading it – but Islam seemed to me to be becoming an obsession and I found it a distasteful one.
After the Charlie attacks a TV journalist became a French YouTube hit by showing that Charlie Hebdo’s covers over a given period of time featured few cartoons attacking Islam. This quite literally superficial analysis has no pertinence whatever.
Firstly, there was plenty on Islam inside.
Secondly, as former Charlie Hebdo contributor Olivier Cyran pointed out in 2013, attacking a minority religion, associated with an immigrant-origin population that is disproportionately underprivileged, is not the same as attacking the Catholic church, “which had – and still has – newspapers, MPs, lobbies, salons and enormous property holdings”.
Catholics, one might add, never have their very right to live in Europe challenged, nor is their religion declared foreign to European culture, despite its provenance.
I can’t put a date on when I gave up reading Charlie. Cyran says it took a radical turn for the worse after 9/11. And he tends to blame Philippe Val, an ardent supporter of Israel who was later appointed director of Radio by Nicolas Sarkozy (not so iconoclastic as all that, eh?), and Caroline Fourrest, a hypersecularist who is rarely absent from TV, radio and the written press these days, thanks to her support for gay marriage, her opposition to hijab and her penchant for sniffing out Salafist conspiracies.
But this hypersecularism is not unique to Charlie. It is very widespread in France – in its arrogant rejection of religion and the religious it was a sort of New Atheismavant la lettre.
It turns out that secularism is one of those container words that you can fill up with any number of meanings, like Liberté, égalité, fraternité or democracy, for that matter.
And, when a term becomes a sort of dogma, no longer examined critically, it lays itself open for exploitation by all sorts of cynical demagogues and authoritarians manqués. We know that from the history of religion, don’t we?
You can see secularism as a truce between non-believers and believers – you keep religion out of my state and I’ll keep my state out of your religion – or you can see it as a more aggressive measure to keep religion completely out of the public eye. That view tends to segue into an apparent desire to wipe religion off the face of the earth. In which case it’s not really secularism, is it? It’s state-sponsored atheism, which hasn’t worked very well.
France’s 1905 law on religion is in fact the first of these alternatives – a more aggressive anti-clerical faction lost the argument – but many French people interpret it as the second, with a tinge of the third, increasingly so these days.
When I first went to Turkey, to cover the 2007 parliamentary elections, some supporters of the secular parties used the French term laïcité to distinguish what Mustapha Kemal Atatürk had put into practice in Turkey from mere secularism.
Like the French version, Turkey’s secularism was born from a violent rupture with the past.
It was an attempt to break the hold of religion on the minds of the masses and end habits regarded as backward according to the Young Turks’ identification of modernity with Europe.
You can understand this zeal in the context of the French revolution. The revolutionaries needed to break the power of a Catholic church that was a powerful part of the ancien regime and, if we bear in mind today’s revelations of clerical child abuse in countries where the church went unchallenged, there must have been an awful lot of residual bitterness over priestly abuses of power, which may explain the violence of some anti-clerical exactions.
Post-Ottoman Turkey, too, had to replace a regime of which religion was an integral part and create a state capable of standing up to the Islamic clergy, although, if we look at Turkey’s current political and social condition, we would have to conclude that it has been a mitigated success. The largest secular party, the CHP, seems to have recognisew this and is revising its hardline position.
But where is the relevance for France today?
When right-wing Catholics and assorted bigots turned out en masse to oppose the Socialist government’s same-sex marriage law – singularly failing to mobilise Muslims, by the way, despite some efforts to do so – there were few appeals to secularism. Indeed, right-wing politicians who have seen fit to call for pork-only menus to be served in school canteens were happy to play fast and loose with the god-botherers.
Because, excuse me for stating the obvious, it’s all about Islam. Nobody thought to ban “ostentatious signs of religion in schools, until a couple of Muslim girls turned up in hijab. (In that debate, which is now being recycled as a debate on cover in universities and workplaces, there is a strange confusion between those in authority and those over whom authority is exercised. Of course teachers should not proselytise, they represent the state, but why shouldn’t their pupils manifest religious convictions? Is it even realistic to expect them not to? In this respect the French are as prudish about religion as the British are about politics.)
That explains why many right-wing ideologues can one minute invoke Europe’s Christian or Judeo-Christian roots and the next pose as ferocious defenders of secularism, just as many of the political successors of the late 19th-century and early 20th-centur anti-Semites are now ardent defenders of Israel.
This form of secularism has become an assertion of the superiority of the Occident over the world it once colonised, tinged with class hatred, given that many of its exponents will happily mix with well-off, “integrated” persons of foreign origin, but like to whip up fear of a lawless mass in the banlieue.
Of course, Muslims are equal in France. Secularism applies to everybody just as “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread”, to quote Anatole France.
As Emmanuel Todd says in Qui est Charlie? – the book that earned him the singular privilege of a reply from the prime minister in the august pages of Le Monde – they face a pressure to conform from people of Catholic culture, who tell them “I have the right to blaspheme against my former religion, so you have to the duty to blaspheme against yours.”
The feeling of cultural superiority takes a distinctive form in France and has infected the left in a way it has not, in my experience, infected the British left.
To go back the two decades to my arrival in France I was struck by how in our globalised world – less globalised then, but still – national attributes continued to exist.
In my new home appreciating good food and drink was not considered elitist snobbery, it was not generally considered necessary to make room for other people when walking in the street, the arts were considered important enough to merit a slot on TV news bulletins, the customer was very definitely not always right, intellectuals felt under no obligation to pretend they were not intellectuals … and every French person was a bit of a patriot.
No matter how left-wing and in principle internationalist they were, they treasured in their hearts a certain conviction that French culture was superior to all others.
Of course, we all assume to some degree or other that what we’re used to is the natural order of things and I know that my new friends often found me quaintly British.
But I think France is the only country where former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement could found his own little party to propagate a bizarre leftish form of nationalism, where the hard-left candidate in the last presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could this year wax indignant about the Corsican regional council taking an oath “in a language I don’t understand” and where Prime Minister Manuel Valls … well I was talking about the left, so let’s leave Manuel Valls out of it.
It’s partly the fault of the French Communist Party, which at the time when it was France’s biggest party in terms of membership took the popular front accommodation with nationalism very seriously, played a heroic role in the resistance to German occupation, which inevitably led to a certain nationalist, even xenophobic, contagion, and after the war just couldn’t get out of the opportunist habit.
And, of course, there’s the revolution, without which the modern world would not exist.
The legacy of the revolution legitimises popular revolt. The slogans of the revolution represent a promise that is sufficiently vague to serve as justification for the established order and rallying cry for those who wish to overthrow it. The revolution has served as example, case study and inspiration for every generation of revolutionaries since.
And its centralist, nation-building aspects sometimes morph into the secular ultimatums, sneering and prejudice that find expression in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, which, despite its affection for the slogan “No god, no masters”, seems to have found it easier to come to an accommodation with the latter than with the former.
Because, despite the naughty words, the routine impertinence, the tits, bums and dicks, Charlie Hebdo is a bit of a court jester these days.
Viewed from the banlieue, as academic and journalist Andrew Hussey points out, Charlie is part of the establishment.
“What is seen in the centre of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society,” he wrote in the New York Timesafter the attacks.
Indeed, one of the main reasons that Islam is resurgent is that the left has lost the leadership of the anti-imperialist and antiracist struggles. Secular nationalist and left-wing anti-colonial movements degenerated into corrupt dictatorships or neo-liberal democratic plutocracies. Mass socialist parties voided themselves of their class content.
The spectre haunting the world today is the spectre of fundamentalist jihad, violent, divisive, frightening, supported by a tiny minority of Muslims but filling a demand created by the arrogance of the West and the inadequacy of the left.
In 2005 I covered Afghanistan’s first post-invasion parliamentary election. Here’s my account, written at the time, of how women and independent candidates struggled to make their voices heard, despite quotas, in a contest dominated by warlords and ethnic-based politicians. In the eastern city of Herat the legacy of one of these ruthless operators lives on, despite his being kicked upstairs to central government. In Kabul a former minister claims a mafia of warlords, drug-runners and NGOs is running the country.
Kabul, 11 September 2005
At last, the freedom they were fighting for! Four years after the US and its allies toppled the Taliban, Kabul has traffic jams.
Our midday journey from the airport to a hotel in the centre of town is excruciating, as we crawl through streets packed with private cars, taxis and land-cruisers.
Just under a year ago, during the presidential election, there was more traffic but not this asphyxiating blockade of the city’s main arteries.
Now the smog has become thicker and the thrum of engines ticking over lasts from mid-morning to evening. Every Kabuli has been granted the democratic right to sit and curse the car in front and pump fumes into the city’s already dust-laden air, whether in his or her own car, in a taxi or in a minibus stuffed full of passengers.
Except for the beggars and hawkers, of course. Amputees, women clad in soiled and faded burkas and kids selling newspapers dodge between the cars and tap on the windows. Near the junction of Park Street and Chicken Street, where foreigners shop for rugs and antique furniture, a man dressed in rags stands in the middle of the traffic, bent under the weight of an apparently paralysed boy who is strapped to his back for the day. The man holds out his hand for alms from the oncoming motorists, as the boy lies on top of him, occasionally rolling his head from side to side, apparently oblivious to the passing traffic.
The Americans are rebuilding the road from the airport, so that visiting dignitaries have a smooth run to their main compound, which is on the way into the city.
The concrete and barbed wire fortifications around their buildings, and those around others that house foreign organisations or Afghan ministries, seem to have been reinforced, eating even further into the streets around them. It doesn’t look as if their occupants expect to leave any day soon.
The square in front of the defence ministry is cordoned off by police … not just because a convoy of cars belonging to Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak was attacked yesterday – the attack missed the minister who was out of town at the time – but also because the square is occupied by several hundred former soldiers.
We have to negotiate a passage through a barricade of bikes before we can talk to the protestors. They are some of several thousand military officers, about a third of the officer corps, who have been thrown out of the army.
These men used to belong to the various militias which were integrated into the army as part of the process which is supposed to demilitarise the country.
Having noticed that army officers’ salaries are several times higher than those of the police, the government has decided to dispense with their services.
The men, who seem to represent all of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups, sit quietly in the dust around a van with a loudspeaker and a man on its roof, addressing them.
He climbs down and comes to talk to us.
Abdel Hafiz was a colonel. He says that the redundant officers could do the work now being done by the more than 30,000 foreign troops in a far-from-pacified country.
“We have high-ranking officers who are experienced and don’t need training. So we don’t need international forces to come here and secure our country.”
There aren’t a lot of jobs about nor spare fertile land to be worked.
“We’ve been borrowing from our friends and from our relatives, so now we are not able to borrow again. Now we’re out of money and our economic condition is getting worse.”
A crowd of about 40 men gathers as we talk. They all claim to be ex-mujahedin, who have fought either the Russians or the Taliban or both.
But the label can cover a multitude of sins. They could well have been involved in the brutality and sectarian viciousness which characterised the conflict and that means that many civilians don’t trust them.
Brought into the army by the post-war Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, which aimed to find places for former fighters in a peaceful Afghanistan, they’ve now been deintegrated with little training in anything other than warfare … thousands of experienced fighters at a loose end in a country already ravaged by war.
Behind the cordon of truncheon-wielding police in front of the entrance to the ministry stands a line of soldiers, guns at the ready for use against their former officers if need be.
Shah Shaheen is a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kabul. The houses sprawling up the hillside and the dirt road that winds between them are all the same dusty colour. A new water-pump stands in a gap in the buildings, rigid and shiny against the jagged outline of distant mountains. The local people have themselves paid for its installation and would like the government to compensate them for the cost and provide other basic services.
Behind the shabby walls, in a house built around a traditional courtyard, Ghutai Khawari sits on a raised piece of ground, flanked by local supporters, with a small audience sitting in the shade provided by a colourfully-patterned sheet stretched between tall roughly-cut poles.
Khawari is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament which is to be elected on Sunday along with provincial assemblies.
She’s a journalist and her level of education seems to impress her audience. In a country with 70-80% illiteracy, poor voters almost always say that they want an “educated person” to represent them.
Her audience is entirely masculine, unless you count a few little girls playing in the street outside.
The men seem to have left their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers at home but they insist that they’re ready to vote for a woman candidate.
Ali, a young man who is enthusiastically moving chairs and making people welcome, speaks to us in English.
“No, it’s not important, that, it is no problem. Islam says that women and men are equal.”
Ghawari tells her audience that it would be a sin to vote for candidates with blood on their hands, a reference to the many warlords who’ve found their way onto the ballot-papers.
Earlier she told us that ending ethnic enmity is her top priority, “especially among women, where they say ‘you’re a Pashtun, you’re a Tajik’ and so on, because we’re women, we’re human, we’re one.”
She accuses the authorities of paying lip-service to helping women but not taking action.
“The government and some NGOs say they will give rights to the people but they don’t pay any attention to the majority of women, who live in the villages, in the provinces.”
She cites as examples the lack of education for girls and poor health care, which, she says leads to 1,000 women dying in childbirth every year.
To her audience she also stresses that she is running a shoe-string campaign.
“You are my only resources,” she tells them.
At least 68 seats have been reserved for women in the 249-member Wolesi Jirga, with at least two in the provincial councils, which will have between nine and 29 members.
Women’s rights campaigners are encouraged by the fact that 328 women are standing for the Wolesi Jirga. Not so many have come forward for the provincial councils, however, where the weight of tradition may be heavier.
Almost all the women standing are independents. That means that, like Ghawari, they have little money, no experience and no established network.
The regional bigwigs and established politicians may have terrorised the area where they’re standing or pocketed fortunes through corrupt dealings but they have the advantage of being well-known and, through patronage, they can find support among the men of influence in the towns and villages.
Ghawari and other women candidates in Kabul say that they’ve faced no intimidation or pressure while campaigning. But, they warn, that may not be the case in the provinces, especially the rural areas.
There women risk being chased off the street if they appear in public. What’s more women can’t go into the mosque to address Friday prayers. Many, though not all, mullahs preach against female participation in public life and, even without that, tradition militates against them.
And there’s also intimidation by warlords and the Taliban.
The Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) reports that the husband of one female candidate in Baghlan province was jailed for two days without charge and later sacked from his job because he helped her campaign.
One woman election worker has been killed during the campaign. Other women report death threats and accusations that they are “American spies”.
Little wonder then that 51 women withdrew their candidacies for unspecified reasons before the campaign started.
No-one can escape evidence of the election in Herat. Candidates’ photographs and slogan-bearing banners hang from string stretched between the pine-trees which line the streets, so that the city looks as if it’s celebrating a particularly popular festival.
Posters are plastered all over any available wall-space – on the concrete and metal umbrellas erected at crossroads to provide traffic-police with shade and on what looks like a peace monument, a structure topped with a globe and four doves which stands at one of the main road junctions.
And they’re contributing to the deterioration of the city’s historic legacy.
Enthusiastic campaigners have fly-posted their candidates’ images onto centuries-old minarets, which have survived earthquake and war but are now threatened by vibrations from a nearby road – and by electoral politics.
The long road to Herat from the airport is lined by trees almost all the way, encouraging fantasies of entering at the head of a trader’s caravan or a conquering army.
You pass through villages with traditional mud-caked buildings, past a park crowded with painted, concrete benches but no people to sit on them and over a bridge which looks down on a broad river-bed, where motorists wash their vehicles in the narrow strip of river that the sun has so far failed to evaporate.
Herat’s a relief after Kabul. Its wide, tree-lined streets are relatively clean and uncongested. There’s less dust and more visible history, most noticeably the huge and beautiful mosque in the city centre.
My translator, Hoshang, is bowled over by the city’s cleanliness and its exotic Persian atmosphere. When we see a man smoking a shisha pipe in a restaurant, he asks me what the strange object is, never having seen one in Kabul or in Peshawar, the two cities he has lived in.
Clearly the governor who built the present seat of local government in the mid-20th century, didn’t want the home of secular power to be completely dwarfed by the mosque. It’s a rambling complex of brick-clad buildings, about as tall as the mosque and pleasant enough to look at, even if it can’t compete with the mosque’s tile-clad walls, which were decorated by craftsmen skilled in a 600-year-old art form.
It’s easy to gain access to high officials. Sitting in the corner of a large room, as a handful of officials administer the citizens who have come to petition him, deputy governor Mir Abdul Khalq, “call me Haj Mir because no-one in Herat will recognise me if you give me the full name”, offers cups of green tea and chats affably. But he says it would be better if I interview Governor Mohammed Khair Khuwa.
Unfortunately, the governor is in Kabul today, so we will have to come back tomorrow.
Haj Mir is a grey-bearded, wrinkled, smiling man, who chats freely about Herat. It is probably Afghanistan’s richest city and he boasts of its public buildings and housing.
I ask if supporters of Ismail Khan, who preceded Khuwa as governoror, still have much influence.
“Oh yes,” says Haj Mir. “I myself am a supporter of Ismail Khan and was with him for seven years during the war.”
This takes me aback since I’d understood that it had taken quite a power struggle for President Hamid Karzai, who was finally elected last year, to dislodge Khan from running the city last year.
Ismail Khan became governor of Herat province in 2001, after fighting the Russian occupation, being jailed by the Taliban and escaping to take control of Herat as the ultra-fundamentalist régime was bombed out of office.
During his governorship, there were many complaints about his warlord ways – a heavy hand with potential opposition and harsh treatment of women in the province.
Last year, there was heavy fighting between Khan’s fighters and those of a rival warlord, Amanullah Khan, a Pashtun. Kabul declared its support for Ismail but, shortly after the fighting ended, Karzai offered the victorious governor the post of minister of power and water – a poisoned promotion which dislodged him for his power-base.
Not everyone was glad to see him go. Riots followed his removal and Khuwa, a Hazara who arrived in town with guards from his own ethnic group, was obliged to take the oath of office in front of a picture of his predecessor.
Khan left behind a mixed reputation. He dealt with critics and suspected enemies in summary fashion – the head of the officially-backed human rights commission told us that, at the official opening of the organisation’s office in the city with national government ministers in attendance, a journalist was beaten up and dragged off to jail. Just so everyone knew who was boss, as it were.
But the ex-governor is still respected for making Herat one of the best-run cities in the country. He paid for public works and efficient administration by collecting the handsome revenue from customs duties on the frontiers with neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan ¼ and refusing to pass any of the money on to Kabul.
Maybe it was that which inspired Karzai to conclude that the governor had to go, rather than the stories of armed tribal fighters doing as they wished on the city’s streets or women found alone with men being arrested and examined for signs of recent sexual intercourse.
But, once the rioting was over, the transition seems to have been relatively smooth.
Haj Mir seems to be working with his ex-boss’s successor and is happy to suggest that we interview the new head of security, Ayub Salangy, another out-of-towner who arrived two months ago accompanied by guards from his home province.
Of course, sending round a journalist may be the Haji’s idea of a practical joke; it turns out that Salangy is home sick today. But he agrees to see us.
Delivered at Salangy’s house by a military vehicle, we find him in his garden, meeting leaders of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of the PRTs, the foreign military units that carry out aid projects, leading to complaints that they have made NGOs targets of possible guerrilla attacks.
We are shown into the house and wait in a living room so generously furnished that there is a TV at either end of the room.
On a table sits a photo mounted on curved glass with blue and gold edges. It shows the lieutenant-general embracing President Karzai as he arrives for a visit to Herat.
Salangy’s assistant assures us that the commander is a good friend of the president and gives us an outline of his employer’s career, which mostly consists of Karzai begging him to go to a number of troublesome provinces, with varying degrees of success. Salangy did serve in possibly the toughest posting, Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold at the time that they took power and still the scene of rebel activity, including a recent attempt to shoot down the president’s airplane.
When he finally meets us, Salangy doesn’t seem too ill. But he undoubtedly has a robust constitution. He’s a buffalo in a shalwar kameez; tall and broad, his hand swallows mine when we shake. Unusually for an Afghan, he is clean-shaven and his hair is cut short, adding to the youthful appearance of his face. It’s a surprising fact here that the men who have probably seen the most combat are the men with the most laugh-lines on their faces.
At some point in his career the lieutenant-general has picked up the art which the French call langue de bois. He studiously avoids giving any interesting answers to my questions: everything will go fine on election day; there are no serious security problems in the province; recent kidnappings and violence were in neighbouring provinces and not on his turf.
When I ask if he’s worried about the way the Americans have used the PRTs, he gently makes a fool of me by explaining that the people he was talking to were Italians, since they have taken over that work in Herat and the west of the country.
Asked if he sees himself as Karzai’s man in Herat, Salangy replies that he’s happy to represent the president and central government here.
But the question seems to have touched a sensitive spot. When I stop recording, the commander declares that, if I’ll permit it, it is his turn to pose a question.
“Who told you I was Karzai’s man?” he asks.
Hoping that the answer will not prove compromising for anyone involved, I tell him that his secretary told me that they were friends.
Before leaving Herat, we take up Haj Mir’s suggestion and try to see the governor. It’s a long and fruitless process which entails visits to his offices, his home and, just before we leave, the recently-built governor’s mansion in the foothills of the mountains that overlook the city.
Persian script dug into the sides declares jihad the salvation of the faithful and what looks like a kilometre of steps lead up to a self-important dome perched on a rock. One gets the impression that this building is part of Ismail Khan’s legacy.
We’re already late for the rendezvous and, after an inconclusive argument with guards and our taxi-driver about whether we will have to walk up all those steps to the mansion in the baking heat, we conclude that there won’t be time for an interview if we’re to catch the plane to Kabul. As we race towards the airport, a phone-call reveals that the governor hasn’t actually left his home.
Both in Herat and Kabul, voters face a huge and confusing choice of candidates.
Ballot papers the size of broadsheet newspapers carry the names, pictures and symbols of hundreds of candidates for the Wolesi Jirga or the provincial councils; in Kabul’s case 390 for the national body and 216 for the provincial one.
Some 70-80% of voters are illiterate and, it being over 30 years since the last such elections, most of the population haven’t taken part in this sort of exercise before.
Of course, there was last year’s presidential election but that was a much simpler affair since only one post was up for grabs. The difference may not have sunk in to the popular consciousness – some punters have apparently told journalists that they intend to vote for Karzai this time round.
The process would have been even more complicated if the original plan to elect district councils at the same time had gone ahead. That vote was postponed. Not to spare the unfortunate electorate the struggle with a third enormous ballot paper. It’s just that the districts don’t really exist yet. Their boundaries haven’t been drawn and their populations have yet to be determined.
On the street most people seem keen to vote but no-one has much idea how to do it. Most Kabulis seem not to have chosen their candidate. In Herat more people seem to have made their choice for both the national and provincial assemblies.
In the cities, at least, no prejudice is expressed against women candidates. Several men declare that they are ready to vote for a woman and some say that they’ve already decided to do so.
Karzai apparently intervened personally to prevent party symbols being printed on the ballot papers, although an accompanying sheet does list the parties and their candidates. This is justified by arguing that it is political groups that have brought the country to its present condition. Karzai himself, of course, has no party although he does have a network of allies. His behind-the-scenes style of politics will probably be best suited by an atomised parliament, in which he can play off individuals or groups against each other.
The ban, along with a first-past-the-post voting system, favours a personality contest and undermines the possibility of a future development of parties formed on the basis of political platforms.
It strengthens candidates who are already well-known – religious leaders, ethnic or regional bosses and warlords, none of whom can be absolved from blame for Afghanistan’s woes.
But their notoriety may backfire, in some cases at least. Soraya Daqiqi, a woman candidate in Herat, says that village elders have told her that it’s time to give a woman a chance. “After all, look at what men have done for us – Timur Lang, Janghis Khan, and that German leader, Hitler.”
Other independent candidates also believe that they may benefit from an anti-warlord backlash.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the last few months and say that they will disrupt the election, although they say that they won’t attack voters.
Most of the violence has been clashes between their fighters and foreign or Afghan soldiers and it has mainly taken place in the south and east, where they still operate quite freely.
But seven candidates have been killed and there has been other election-related violence.
And there’s concern about the number of former commanders, many of whom have been involved in atrocities, who are on the ballot papers. Only 11 candidates were disqualified for being militia leaders before the campaign began, while human rights campaigners claim that in many areas at least half of those standing are warlords.
The internationally-staffed Election Complaints Commission says that only those who have been convicted of crimes can be excluded, which seems reasonable until you remember how difficult it is for victims to obtain justice here.
Of course, there is no clear demarcation between the terms “warlord” and “mujahed” and many violent killers have been invaluable allies to Karzai and the US.
Analysts at the International Crisis Group claims that deals were struck with some commanders, allowing them to remain on the ballot papers in return for promises to collaborate with the official disarmament process.
Nevertheless, there are no reports of candidates actually bumping off their rivals.
That may be a sign of patience, rather than of born-again pacifism. A clause in the election law has become known as the “assassination clause”. It declares that after the poll, if an assembly member dies, the runner-up takes his or her place, giving rise to fears that some frustrated candidates may revert to their old habits to achieve the victory that the electoral process failed to deliver.
The electoral law is remarkably tolerant of practices which the Asian observers of Anfrel, who know a thing or two about money politics, claim “may be regarded as vote-buying in other countries”.
They describe electoral cards being bought from voters in some provinces and mullahs being offered money in return for their endorsement (one of them boasts that his backing would mean at least 5,000 votes for the lucky bidder).
Rich candidates are able to spend large sums on fleets of vehicles, election workers and other resources, while poorer candidates struggle to raise funds.
The Afghan semi-official observers’ organisation, Fefa, says it’s disappointed that a ban on handing out gifts is only valid on election day.
The Afghan fondness for a feast may indeed prove useful in courting the floating voter. Fefa says that one candidate, who owns a hotel, has been giving free lunches and dinners “almost every day” and has hosted one lunch with music and dancing for about 5,000 people.
Uzbek warlord General Abdel Rashid Dostum proved even more generous. He invited notables in Sherbergan province to a party “in honour of his father” which lasted for three days.
One candidate told Anfrel that he was worried about what the candidates will do to recoup their outlay. “Maybe robbery or drug-trafficking. They need to get the money that they spent back.”
The Election Commission says that it can’t ban such practices because they are part of the Afghan tradition of hospitality.
strange noise disturbs the peace of Kabul’s Shah-e-Naw Park. It’s the horribly distorted sound of a television rigged up among the trees.
Nearby is a tent, which has been occupied by Ramazan Bashardost every day since he resigned from the post of minister of planning and launched a clean-government campaign.
Bashardost is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga and this is two days before polling day, well within the 48-hour period within which election campaigning has been banned, but he says that the video of him currently playing to a small audience is of a speech he made before the start of campaigning and so not in breach of election law.
Bashardost resigned in a row over the 2,355 NGOs which have mushroomed in Afghanistan in the war’s aftermath. The 2001 Tokyo reconstruction conference allotted them a third of foreign aid. But Bashardost compiled a list of 1,935 that he wanted to close, saying that many of them were fake, some operating for profit and not the benefit of Afghans, others just inefficient and nearly all spending most of the donors’ money on their staff salaries and operating costs rather than on the people they were supposed to help.
“About 70% of their budgets are used for administration or logistics or for a luxurious life,” Bashardost tells me. “There is NGOism in Afghanistan, like a Communist system. It is very strange that the Afghan poor people don’t have access to the directors of NGOs. I think it is more easy to meet Mr Karzai.”
When he was a minister he would send people to meet NGO chiefs.
“They returned to my office and say ‘Mr Minister, when the bodyguard is happy he took my paper and when the bodyguard is not happy he said very bad things to me and I couldn’t see the director’.”
Now he says that Afghanistan is run by a new nomenklatura of NGO bosses, UN and US officials, international military chiefs, Afghan warlords and government ministers.
“It is a very dangerous situation because $12 billion has arrived in Afghanistan since two years and the Afghan people believe that there is not reconstruction. I think that some people say ‘My life is now more bad than three years ago’. This nomenkaltura shares the money between its members and we’re losing the chance to show a good cooperation between Western countries and a Muslim country.”
Although he was educated abroad and speaks English and French, Bashardost mistrusts returned exiles as much as he mistrusts warlords, claiming that many have only returned for business opportunities and that those who are standing for the Wolesi Jirga are motivated by commercial, rather than political, interest.
Bashardost believes the multi-national mafia is also complicit in the drugs trade.
Since the US-led invasion, Afghanistan has returned to the top of the world league of opium-poppy growers, providing most of the heroin sold in Europe and much of Asia.
The ex-minister says that only one per-cent of the profits go to Afghan farmers and that local and international officials are involved in it.
“The new parliament may be a narco-parliament,” he says and slams Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and President Karzai for saying top officials, including six governors, were involved in drug trafficking but refusing to name them, let alone take action against them.
Few candidates speak as freely or directly as Bashardost. Those with dubious pasts – or presents – use portentous declarations to avoid addressing embarrassing subjects. And, in a country in which guns rather than discussion have decided political issues for so many years, new candidates lack any experience of real political debate. When faced with a microphone, most either launch into long autobiographies, give accounts of their educational qualifications or make vague statements about ending the violence and rooting out corruption in exactly the same terms that their rivals use.
18 September, election day. At the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which is a polling station for the day, voters are encouraged to do their civic duty by music broadcast from tinny loudspeakers and banners bearing inspirational messages such as “Let’s join together to participate in the parliamentary election which is a legislative organ and one of the three pillars of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”.
But the official enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have rubbed off onto the electorate. At 8.10am, just over two hours since the polls opened, there are few voters here, an astonishing contrast to the long queues to vote in the presidential election.
Inside the building a young election official says that it’s early yet, there’s still time, and assures us that voters have had no difficulty with the complicated voting procedure.
As he speaks, a man in a voting booth behind him is turning his ballot paper this way and that with a mystified air. He calls to an official to come and explain what he should do.
Outside two young men tell us that they have voted for Bashardost because they believe he is honest, while others won’t name their choice.
When we leave the building, SUVs have blocked off the street and armed guards stand outside the polling station. US ambassador Ronald Neumann is here.
He declares the day a triumph.
“Four years ago they were killing women with stones in the sports stadium and today women are running their separate polling places here next door to the men’s polling places.”
What does the ambassador think of the presence of alleged warlords on the ballot papers?
“I think people get to actually vote, so if they don’t want to vote for a warlord they don’t have to, they can vote for somebody else.”
So, even if a candidate has blood on his hands, he should be allowed to stand?
The tone becomes slightly less affable.
“No, I don’t think that’s a correct statement. I think what you need to understand is that this is the first time that they’ve tried to run a process by rules. And it’s a country where you don’t have full evidence, so sometimes you don’t get the result that you would ideally like, just as sometimes, in your country or mine, somebody may go free in a trial where you think they should have been convicted.”
Neumann gives the impression that, so far as he’s concerned, there have been exhaustive legal efforts to find war-criminals and that they are now over.
“The fact is that they did run a process by rules … and that’s a big, important step in the transition to building a rule-based system of law.”
More voters turn out as the day goes on but there are nowhere near last year’s number.
At Shah Shaheen nobody will tell us who their choice was, although one man says that he’s voted for a woman and a man, while the women, all clad in blue burkas, huddle in a short line at the side of the polling station.
The women at Fourth Makoryan, a middle-class district, are more assertive. Many of the polling officers and voters are elegantly dressed, some wearing smart trouser suits with headscarves.
One, who’s enjoying the sun after casting her ballot, proudly declares that she has voted for a woman candidate.
“We all want to vote for women because women are the ones who care for women,” she says.
But she’s not sure how much things will change for women after the election.
“Maybe yes, maybe no. In Kabul the women vote but in some other provinces some of them don’t vote. I hope that they all vote and the women win.”
In Dehyaya, a village outside Kabul, we don’t see any women. To get there we have to turn off the fine new road that the American military have built to get to their base at Bagram airfield and on to a track across the dusty plain that lies between ranges of Afghanistan’s cruelly beautiful mountains.
The stones crunch under the weight of our four-wheel drive and the dust gets everywhere – into the car, into our hair, into our nostrils.
We follow the track round a bend and find the beginning of the village.
It’s made up of traditional Afghan dwellings; huge compounds hidden behind walls several hundred metres long.
They’re covered in dried mud, made out of desert dirt, and they look as if they have grown out of this unworldly, grey-brown landscape.
As a scorching sun burns the last drops of moisture from the land, we look down a long, straight street, flanked by long, straight mud walls, heading towards a distant perspective point.
There’s not a soul to be seen; it’s like High Noon – only with more dust.
Who knows how people scratch a living out of this arid landscape but the village seems to be large, even if you take into account the size of the compounds.
One thing’s for sure, land can’t be very expensive round here.
Down the street and around a bend, we come across a petrol station.
It’s deserted, too, but there are signs of election activity – candidates’ posters have been pasted on its walls and on the sign at its entrance.
He’s a notorious militia leader, whom human-rights campaigners have demanded be taken off the ballot paper, because of his alleged brutality during the war.
In the days of the fight against Russian occupation, Sayyaf was a friend of Osama ben Laden and mixed with the hard-line Islamists who received US funding for their anti-Communist jihad.
But, despite his dubious past, he has stayed in the running.
His position can’t have been hindered by the fact that he has recently acted as an adviser to Karzai, doing his best to keep Afghanistan’s legal system true to his severe interpretation of Islam.
A bit further down the street, and at last there are signs of life.
A small crowd of men and boys has gathered in front of the school, where voting is taking place.
As we go into the building, Hoshang suggests that maybe we shouldn’t stay too long.
“Taliban fire rockets at Kabul from these mountains.”
Inside, however, all is running smoothly, if not very busily, and the polling officers say that there have been no threats or intimidation.
One of the voters is a former mujahed. He won’t name the person he voted for but says that “he is my friend from the jihad time”. But, like all ordinary voters what he wants most is peace – “No more fighting in my country”.
To get back to Kabul, we’re told to go over the mountain.
As we climb the slope, we can at last see some patches of green in the village, hidden behind some of those long walls.
When our wheels get stuck in the dirt half way up the slope, I wonder if I should duck down in the back if men with guns appear or whether they’ll see me anyway. But they don’t appear and, when the car climbs over the peak, we see an inscription dug into the hillside.
I ask if this is another call to jihad, like the ones we saw outside Herat.
Hoshang squints at the writing. “No,” he replies, “it says ‘carwash’.”
And there, just below it, is a huge car lot, the vehicles glistening in the sun, and, beyond it, the grubby bustle of Kabul.
On our return, we hear that three rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the mountains during the morning.
Two failed to explode. One of them hit a UN compound and injured one person, although not seriously.
Turnout is low throughout the country. Officials claim about 50%, some sceptics put it as low as 35% and claim that there were no votes at all in some parts of the south, where the Taliban are active.
The electoral commission says that seven polling stations never opened at all, apparently because the security services were too scared to protect them. Security worries led to a temporary disruption of the vote in many other places and there are already allegations of fraud.
Apparently anticipating a wave of enthusiasm throughout the land, the electoral commission made a last-minute decision to bring forward the start of the vote an hour. Unfortunately, the decision didn’t get through to all voting officials, some of whom arrived, bleary-eyed, at 7.00am or later, to find impatient voters waiting for them or to hear that some had already given up.
Piqued, perhaps, by criticism of the small number of candidates banned from standing, officials took another 28 off the ballot paper during the week before the vote. Human rights groups weren’t mollified, claiming that they weren’t the roughly 150 warlords and thugs that they had in mind.
And, unfortunately, the list of these late removals was either not posted up at many voting centres or put in a position which hardly anyone saw. Even where it was visible it was meaningless to the illiterate majority of voters.
To add to the confusion, two candidates were put back onto the ballot, one because he had been confused with someone else of the same name.
Now the votes have to be gathered in, using donkeys and helicopters to bring them down from the most remote mountain villages. Definitive results are not expected for at least a month and the absence of debate and clearly defined political camps makes it difficult to guess what the Wolesi Jirga will look like.
Robert Kluyver, a fluent Dari-speaker and former UN worker who has set up the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society and also represents George Soros’s Open Society Institute, believes there are three main reasons for the low turnout. Many candidates were unknown and discouraging political parties added to confusion about what they might stand for, many hopes that were raised by last year’s presidential election have already been disappointed and in some areas, especially the cities, there’s suspicion that the results were rigged in advance.
“While a lot of candidates were ex-fighters, either mujahedin or Communists, I think that there will be a strong presence of civil society.”
But he believes that the parliament will be weak.
“With this low voter-turnout they will lack the political legitimacy they need. This parliament doesn’t have any clearly defined functions. Thirdly, the parliamentarians won’t have any experience in conducting parliamentary affairs and I think that there will be a strong tendency for the parliament to be bogged down in local issues, for example about schools and hospitals in particular districts, because that’s very much how the candidates now see themselves, representing the interests of their local community.”
He believes that, although most Afghans are sick of religious interference in politics, there will be a bloc of representatives who will push a hard-line position on issues such as sharia law.
And what of the question that voter after voter raised during the campaign – the warlords’ hold on the country?
Saman Zia-Zarifi is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch. Being of Iranian origin, he can speak Dari and has come to observe the election along with a team from the high profile US-based group.
He says that most voters had to choose between unknown candidates and notorious ones.
Zia-Zarifi is bitterly critical of the election complaints commission’s failure to strike “warlords, former military commanders and human-rights abusers” from the ballot.
“It created a certain amount of confusion and even questions about the political nature of this process,” he says and concludes. “It remains to be seen if the Afghan electors have achieved what the electoral commission failed to do.”
I don’t want to sound patronising here, Yanis Varoufakis certainly has more academic qualifications than me and could undoubtedly teach me a thing or two about economics, but it does seem that his time as a minister has been an education for him in politics, the nature and art of negotiation and the ruthlessness of the establishment.
“ … there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.”
But why did he imagine it would be any other way?
Forgive me for saying so, Professor, but you were naïve. These people already know the arguments and have decided that they are of no use to them.
Some – Schäuble, Tusk – appear to be ideologically committed to austerity, perhaps due to a sentimental attachment to the idea of the lower orders suffering or perhaps because of their political, personal or family histories.
Others have built careers in the service of an establishment that is becoming increasingly addicted to short-term financial returns, big dividends, not paying taxes and slashing waste, ie what’s left of the welfare state.
They don’t want to listen to the opposing case and explaining that case was not relevant to negotiation over Greece’s debt.
In the long run, austerity means that the EU, and eventually capitalism, will eat itself.
But – and for anyone who’s read previous relevant posts on my blog may find I sound a bit Johnny One Note here – the restraints on their short-termism have gone. These were essentially a powerful labour movement and, even more importantly in my view, a competing social system in the form of the Soviet bloc. They no longer exist, so the capitalist class no longer accepts that the state disciplines its need for higher and higher returns in the briefest delays possible.
Negotiation is not about persuading your opponents of the correctness of your case, it’s about convincing them that they have something to lose by not accepting your demands or at least reaching compromise.
That’s why I was amazed when the Syriza leaders declared that they would not leave the eurozone or accept loans from Russia.
Whether you intend to do it or not, why rule out a course of action that could frighten some of the people on the opposite side of the table (although not Schäuble in the first case, apparently)?
Equally puzzling was the Syriza leadership’s acceptance of France’s “help” in drawing up its final proposals (after Varoufakis’s resignation).
The French government and the civil servants it deployed to look over the Greeks’ shoulders may not want a Grexit but they have enthusiastically applied austerity policies and seem to have had a major role in drafting a swingeing package for Greece.
While the negotiations were going on, someone suggested to me that Schäuble was playing hard cop to allow Angela Merkel to look like the soft cop. Not a good comparison. Angela was quite hard enough. Wolfgang was more like the cop applies electrodes to your genitals.
The French Socialist leaders were the soft cops, with President François Hollande apparently on the phone to the Greeks and the Germans continuously in the run-up to the last deal and, in the end, they managed to thrust their package down the Greeks’ throats.
Oh well! At least the Syriza leaders showed that politicians don’t have to wear ties.
Ties are the sartorial descendants of a scrap of material that knights used to wear to stop their breastplates rubbing against their necks. Whether the big swinging dicks in the boardrooms and ministries like it or not, we don’t wear armour any more, so ties are pointless.
That’s a tiny victory, I suppose.
I’m off to Greece this week. So more on the blog later.
In principle, I’m not a pacifist. Faced with the brutality of those in power, of state terror, of armed occupation, one has the right, even the duty, to resist.
But, when you see the results of armed conflict, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.
Of course, the vast majority of wars are not just. They are fought for the sake of privileged minorities and justified by lies. They are declared – although nobody seems to formally declare war any more, they just go ahead and do it – by old men who have lived full, if not honourable, lives and fought by young people, who, in general, think they are immortal, although I imagine a few hours on the battlefield strips them of that illusion.
When we arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 (see earlier post) we were greeted by women in burkas begging – their husbands had been killed in the wars, they had been banned from working under the Taliban. Liberation for them meant the right to go out on the street and ask for money to support their kids.
And then there were the hundreds, thousands, of people – men, women, children – missing limbs; some were former combatants, many the victims of bombardments or landmines. Some had been lucky enough to have been fitted with artificial replacements by the Red Cross. Many more had not, were unable to work, some in permanent pain.
On a training course for working in war zones, I and several other journalists were taken to a French army centre for training in demining.
A young, working-class bloke showed us the best way to get out of a minefield if you find you’ve stumbled into one. And he showed us the various types of mine and cluster bombs, including small explosive devices that are dropped from airplanes and left lying on the ground. They look like toys and children often pick them up. Of course, they’re killed or maimed for life.
“I’m a soldier and I have to accept discipline,” he told us. “But, if anyone ever tells me to lay one of these saloperies, I’ll refuse, whatever the consequences.”
Arriving in Baghdad in 2003 (article to be posted), we saw bullet casings lying on the roads, crowds looting shopping malls, US soldiers guarding the oil ministry but not much else. A man outside the Red Cross headquarters told me he urgently needed medicine to stay alive and was disgusted with my useless and evasive reply.
In the Palestinian Territories I saw an Israeli tank point its gun turret at an old man and a toddler, barking orders through a loudspeaker system (kids later stoned the tank), a roadblock where every Palestinian man was lined up in a field as if the Israeli soldiers on the road above them were about to open fire, men and women queueing at checkpoints as Israeli soldiers questioned their right to move around their own land, the separation wall – a scar across the landscape.
Shortly before we arrived in Afghanistan, our colleague at Johanne Sutton had been killed entering the country from the north.
Shortly before that Claude had sat near me in the canteen. “When are we going to work together in Pakistan again, Tony?” he asked. I said I was going there soon to cover another election.
A week later he and Ghislaine were dead from a bullet to the back of the head.
As I and my colleagues stumbled through an Afghan valley, believing that we were going to be shot, I thought of the people who loved me and asked myself how I could have been so irresponsible towards them. I’ve since heard other people who have been in similar situations describing the same reaction, so I suppose that it’s a kind of psychological defence mechanism.
Anyway, afterwards you’re unbelievably happy to be alive and determined to get what you can out of life. And death doesn’t seem so abstract any more – yours or other people’s. It’s the end. Not so easy, when you don’t just know that intellectually but feel it in your being, to risk your own life … or think of taking someone else’s.
So, should you be thinking of starting a war, please think of all the individual lives that it will end. The people who die will not enjoy the benefits you say will come from the conflict – not just the soldiers who are, after all, combatants, not just the journalists who’ve chosen to go where the story is, but also the local civilians who are caught in the crossfire, who step on a landmine or are hit in a drone strike.
And this is a challenge for all of us who would like to see the world radically changed.
The rich and powerful are ready to do anything to hold onto power and they infect their opponents with their own brutality. Anyone wishing to change systems, overturn states, topple ruling classes has to be ruthless, ready maybe to sacrifice a generation or two for a better world. Those who die along the way will never know that better world. And the liberators risk becoming corrupted by the struggle – by the absolute power that flows from the barrel of a gun, by learning to live with the injustices they or their comrades are bound to commit sooner or later, by the fear of traitors and spies that can become the fear of all critics.
I realise none of this is any more original than the headline I’ve chosen for this posting. And maybe I’ve known it all along. But, now I’ve seen the effects of war, I feel it, too.
In 1999 I watched Indonesians in Jakarta’s red-light districts, Chinatown and other areas cast their ballot in a mood of elation – for many, at least – after the fall of Suharto, the corrupt repressive president who had staged an anti-communist coup in 1965. Here’s what I wrote at the time.
It’s 8.20 am on Monday 7 June 1999 and the first voter in Prawabungga steps forward.
Watched by a hundred or so other residents of this Jakarta shanty-town, he picks up ballot-papers with the names and symbols of 48 parties on them, goes into the booth to make his mark, comes out, holds the papers above his head with a flourish and places them in the urns.
Then, with a shaking hand … thanks to the unaccustomed public attention, or is it just the close contact with officialdom? … he dips his finger into a bowl of ink, so that he is marked as having voted and can’t go round for a second shot.
For the next couple of weeks, about 100 million Indonesians will walk around with that brown-black stain on one of their fingers, a sign that they participated in the historic first election since the fall of President Suharto.
The elaborate voting procedure involves queueing until your name is called out and tackling ballot-papers as big as maps for parliamentary, provincial and district elections. It’s taking place at 320,000 polling stations throughout the vast archipelago of Indonesia, which has more than 7,000 inhabited islands and over 112 million registered voters. It’s difficult not to get carried away when quoting figures about Indonesia. They’re usually large: number of languages spoken (over 300), total population (about 203 million), amount of money salted away by the former president’s family (US$ 73 billion, according to Time magazine).
Prawabungga’s residents probably don’t have much in the way of savings. They are street-stall-holders, pedicab-drivers or just plain unemployed.
Many of them are sex workers, and there’s evidence of the district’s raunchy night-life in the lurid film-posters that hang just above the polling-station, which appears to be in front of the local cinema.
Our party of three foreign journalists is guided by Indonesian journalists Rin and Has. As we leave the area, I ask Rin if the prostitutes’ clients are Indonesians or tourists.
“They’re mostly lower class Indonesians,’’ she says, “lorry-drivers and the like.’’
We cross the main road and walk along the side of a scrubby piece of waste-land in a fork in the roads. ‘That’s where they go to play,’’ she says, indicating inverted commas around ‘play’ with her fingers, Hillary-Clinton-style.
Next stop is another red-light district, although this one obviously aims for wealthier customers. Kramat Tunggak’s bars (Marco Polo, Valentinos, Adam Ayem) are closed. A few girls loiter with the cats behind the iron-work, which is painted lime-green, mauve and other catchy colours. Over 100 are dutifully queueing to vote. Others have got to the head of the queue and have the privelege of sitting under the canvas roof of the polling station, along with official observers and local dignitaries. The local dignitary in charge of the urns, decked out in flashy shirt, chunky ring, baggy trousers and pointed shoes, looks suspiciously like a pimp.
The play-hard architecture can’t disguise a pervading stink that rises from open sewers full of a thick black liquid which run alongside the dirt streets. The girls queue dutifully, most of them in tight jeans and colourful tops. There’s a scattering of older women and men. A name is called and an old woman in a shabby dress starts to shuffle across the floor, more or less in the direction of the polling booth. Her eyes are milky with cataracts. One of the observers helps her. An old man, with another of those chunky rings on his finger, waits for her outside the ropes that mark out the polling station. They shuffle off together down a grey lane.
A girl who has just voted tells us this is “Mega” territory and that during the campaign the whole area was covered in red, the colour of the Democratic Party of Struggle, PDIP. Mega is PDIP leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founder and first president Sukarno, who has become an idol for millions, especially the urban poor.
Just as I’m beginning to fear that our guides suffer from brothel-fixation, an impression which is backed up by Has’s dubious jokes about coming back when the voting’s over, we’re off to another district. This one’s a strongly Muslim area, not far from Tanjung Priok where soldiers shot up to 200 people during a riot in 1984, turning it into a stronghold of the United Development Party, the PPP, which was the officially-created Muslim opposition party under Suharto. But now, a young observer tells us, this area too is Megawati territory.
And in Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, where voters wait in order in a well-swept schoolyard with a cock crowing somewhere nearby, businessman Jun Han switches from bahasa Indonesia to English to tell us that the vote is free and then back to say that he has voted PDIP.
The Chinese have special reasons for voting for a party that is seen as secular and nationalist. Along the main road scores of buildings still have all their windows smashed, like empty eye-sockets which allow a view in on scrubby boards or smoke-blackened walls. And one large space is almost flat, apart from the broke skeleton of a concrete structure. It’s the site of a commercial centre which has been razed to the ground.
Other shops nearby are untouched. Anxious owners have often painted ‘Muslim’ and ‘pribumi’ (literally son of the soil – a “native” Indonesian) on their shutters.
Glodok was the scene of anti-Chinese riots, shortly before Suharto fell. Riots that may not have been as spontaneous as they at first seemed. Suharto’s son-in-law. Prabowo Subianto, is widely believed to have sent members of his Kostrad units to guide the outraged pribumi citizens in their destruction. Prabowo has fled this and other controversies concerning him, reportedly to represent his brother-in-law’s firm in the Middle East. He is based in Amman, where he can always pop in to visit his personal friend, King Abdallah of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.
That’s just part of the Suharto legacy. A legacy that means that Golkar, the party that the former president founded after the army seized power in 1965, is despised in Jakarta and the big cities of Java. A legacy which is sweeping Megawati into the lead, mainly because she was one of the old régime’s best-known enemies.
I arrived in Jakarta on the Thursday before polling-day. It was a day of action in support of the PDIP, so it was a bad choice from a transport point of view. But a good one for atmosphere.
I knew something was up when I met that old reporter’s standby, the taxi-driver who drove me from the airport. This one wasn’t the garrulous know-all of caricature, perhaps that was just because his English wasn’t up to communicating with me.
But his vehicle was pretty communicative. A red pennant fluttered from the aerial. A red flag with buffalo was draped on the back. And during the journey the driver took a PDIP T-shirt and fixed it the window beside him.
As we entered Jakarta, I realised that our vehicle was not the only one that was flying the flag.
Thousands of other cars, pedicabs, vans and lorries sported the party’s colours. Convoys carrying shouting and singing youths clogged up the city’s streets. Mopeds sped by in a blur of red. As on the two previous days of action, the city’s traffic moved a crawl all day. Young party supporters took over traffic duty, as the police looked on.
At one point we trailed a lorry bearing a huge model of a buffalo, as hundreds of people chanted the name of their heroine … “Megawati, Megawati!”
There were perhaps a million people on the streets of Jakarta, feeling that for the first for decades someone thought they mattered. There was passion; there was sincerity; and even if there were also illusions, it was still refreshing after the stage-managed blandness and generalised cynicism of a rich-world election campaign.
There was passion again when Golkar’s cavalcades hit the streets the following day. It shared its day of action with two other parties but their combined efforts came nowhere near the PDIP on the traffic-disruptionometer.
To add to the humiliation, residents of one poor area pelted a cavalcade with stones, attacked Golkar supporters, tore their banners from them and burnt them. Previous incidents of this kind had already made party leaders loath to appear on the city’s streets.
The woman they want to be president comes from a very different background to that of most of her supporters. She is the wealthy heir to the Sukarno dynasty, who has the charisma to reduce a crowd of thousands to silence … but is reported to be haughty with her collaborators. Megawati’s party is way out in front so far. But it will have to form a coalition, probably with two reform-minded Islam-based parties.
Indonesia’s people have reawakened to politics. The residents of Prawabunga feel that at last they have a chance to make their voice heard. But how will they vent their disappointment, if Megawati lets them down?
Maybe the official election commission is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of a poll which must collect in results from sprawling cities, jungle villages and far-flung islands . Maybe it’s the unaccustomed outbreak of democracy which is proving too much. Under Suharto there were only three legal parties and one of them was wrecked by a government-engineered split, because Megawati became its leader.
But many Indonesians fear that the Golkar party, through which Suharto ruled for 32 repressive years, is up to its old tricks, bullying and bribing voters to back its ticket and stuffing or losing ballot-boxes where that doesn’t work.
Most foreign observers say that the election has been relatively free and fair, although there has been a successful boycott in Aceh, orth Sumatra, where there are calls for a referendum on independence.
In January 2015 Greek voters rejected the austerity policies imposed on them for their previous governments’ sin of accumulating billions of euros of debts. Democracy, whose defence is so often evoked as the reason for wars and restrictions of civil liberties, did not prove so dear to European leaders’ hearts when it resulted in the election of a left-wing government in the country of its birth.
The Syriza government has proved not quite as far left as some predicted, ready to negotiate, its ministers assuring their counterparts they don’t want to leave the euro, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis telling the world that he wants to save Europe from itself.
But Europe’s leaders, the “moderates” of mainstream-media labelling, have insisted it is austerity or nothing.
After Varoufakis visited the European Central Bank in February, the ECB responded to his conciliatory tone by effectively cutting off Greek banks’ access to short-term loans, doing all it could to bring speedy confrontation.
In March the European Commission opposed the government’s “humanitarian crisis bill”, telling it that helping the poor, the aged and the homeless would be “inconsistent with the commitments made”, as would its proposal to facilitate collection of the country’s massive tax arrears by allowing them to be paid in instalments.
Greek tax evasion is estimated to have been worth 20bn euros a year and has been going on for many decades, so pursuing it should provide a tidy sum for the government – France collected 1.8bn euros in 2014 and expects a further 2.2bn euros in 2015 after a number of tax evaders ‘fessed up, motivated both by the fear of exposure thanks to the Swissleaks revelations and a promise of clemency to those who came forward. It could have been far more since tax collectors complained that they did not have enough staff to deal with all the cases in reasonable time.
But collecting tax dodgers’ cash appears to be a low priority for the ECB, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.
The creditors’ conditions “are political”, comments Roman Godin in La Tribune, “the acceptance of ‘reforms’ of the labour market and pensions, which are not urgent economically speaking but which politically ‘cancel out’ the essential points of Syriza’s programme and message”.
Who really believes that Greece can clear its debts if government income is slashed by austerity policies that have led to a 26% fall in production, 26% unemployment and a 33% fall in wages, it is obliged to take out more loans with interest rates attached and, on top of that, it is discouraged from chasing up tax income it is already entitled to?
Anyone would think that for the EU and IMF leaders balancing budgets was less important than destroying what’s left of the welfare state!
French-bashing – the hidden agenda
In France we hear an awful lot about the need to reduce the debt – in fact, it has dictated the Socialist government’s economic policy since its election.
Following the French media is like having a friend who is given to self-flagellating criticism but takes violent exception if you agree with them. On the one hand French commentators get prickly about “French-bashing” (yes, that’s a real Franglais word now), on the other editorialists, analysts, politicians and business leaders insist that the country is locked in a spiral of decline with the working and middle classes frolicking in the sun of unaffordable privilege while employers, big and small, are weighed down by the twin burdens of bureaucracy and taxation. Adding its voice to the chorus of cutters, the European Commission has ordered the government to slash a budget deficit of 4.3 per cent of GDP in 2014 to 3.0 per cent in 2017, although France has gained no less than three extensions, unlike the poor Greeks.
The Socialist government has obeyed orders, drawing up plans to cut 50 billion euros from public spending over the next three years, on top of previous cuts and rises in VAT.
First among France’s autoflagellants is the main bosses’ organisation, the Medef. Of course, it is not really indulging in self-criticism as much as criticism of the state insofar as it is perceived to be indulging the lower orders. The Medef and its cothinkers latch onto what the French annoyingly call “Anglo-Saxon” critiques of the French economy, defending France from the French-basheurs with about as little enthusiasm as their forerunners defended la patrie at the end of the 1930s. But then patriotism, like taxes, is for the little people.
International comparisons don’t always bear out the image of the French being especially idle or particularly privileged, especially when one takes into account productivity, which in some sectors was actually boosted by bosses compensating for the 35-hour week by investing or changing working practices.
But the really puzzling question, for me at least, is how it is that France can’t afford to pay for improvements in social conditions conceded since the end of World War II when GDP, despite declining in the post-2008 crisis, has not just risen but soared in the past 100 years.
GDP per capita:
French total GDP in 1950 was 15.5bn euros. In 1990 it was 1 058.6bn and in 2013 it was 2 113.7bn.
Inflation has taken a chunk out of that, of course, but, if I’ve worked the online calculator correctly, 1950’s GDP was 284bn and 1990’s was 1,566bn in 2013 prices. http://france-inflation.com/calculateur_inflation.php. So we are more productive and vastly wealthier than we were 50 years ago, especially if you bear in mind that wealth has not only been created but also accumulated over the years.
A symptom of France’s unbearable tax burden, perhaps?
Not really, in the tax avoidance stakes the country comes behind Switzerland, the UK, Venezuela and the US, none of whom have higher income tax levels than France – Bolivarist Venezuela actually having the lowest at 34%.
In the space of a few months a total of 180.6bn euros went through HSBC’s Geneva branch to be salted away in tax havens. The money came from all over the world with no apparent correlation between the top rate of income tax and rich people’s inclination to tell the truth to the taxman. The blunt truth is that no matter how much you cut tax, the rich – whether they’re arms traffickers, comedians, politicians, surgeons or heirs to family fortunes – will never be satisfied.
On top of which, they’re good negotiators – it’s a lot of what bosses do for a living – so they’re unlikely to say “Thanks, guys, that’s enough!”
“As long as you’re winning, keep playing,” comments Luc Peillon in Libération newspaper, when reviewing yet another set of demands put forward by the Medef last year.
Having already won “a historic reduction in labour costs” of 40 billion euros during the life of François Hollande’s government, the bosses’ union drew up a new shopping list that included cutting two public holidays, more exemptions for businesses on taxes and social security contributions, creating a loophole in the minimum wage, extending Sunday working and that old chestnut ending the 35-hour week, all under the pretence that it wants to create jobs.
After examining the Medef’s claim that their proposals would create up to 600,000 jobs, Peillon found that the real figure would be about 30,000. Except it wouldn’t. That last proposal would probably destroy jobs by expanding overtime working rather than creating new employment.
This medicine doesn’t work … have some more!
Given that right-wing parties the world over continually advocate “reducing the tax burden” and supposedly left-wing parties habitually cave in to the demand, you’d think that bribing the bosses to invest has a proven track record of job creation.
But in France, as in the rest of the world, the pressure for more tax cuts goes on. The wealthy are cancelling their subscription to the state, while still calling on its services when they prove useful.
So where has the money gone?
Into investors’ pockets. Dividends have risen from 12-13% of French companies’ operating income in 1980 to 30% in 2013, according to state statistics unit Insee.
And whoops! There goes investment (it’s the grey line at the bottom of the graph below profit margins and self-financing rates from 1984 onwards):
Sums paid in dividends in France were half those invested in 1980. They are 2.5 times more today.
And it’s not just in France. All over the rich world companies are stuffing their shareholders’ pockets as if there were no tomorrow.
“Global dividends soared 10.5% to $1.167 trillion in 2014, a new record,” the Henderson Global Dividend Index (HGDI) reports with considerable satisfaction. “Underlying dividend growth – which adjusts for currency movements, special dividends, the timing of big payments and index changes – was still robust at 8.8%.”
Commenting on the international trend, investment fund boss Larry Fink is shown in Perrin’s documentary, Cash Investigation, warning of a threat to companies’ long-term survival if they carry on as they are now.
Here’s how investments has fared in the US and the UK:
The pressure to pay out not only means cutting investment in plant but also in training, one of French industry’s real weaknesses. While right-wing economists compare France unfavourably to Germany on many economic fronts, they rarely mention one crucial difference – in 2012 Germany spent 90bn euros on research and development while France could only rustle up 51bn euros.
Maybe French employers should be getting tax breaks for research. Well, actually, they already are. It’s CIR, the purple line in the graph, produced by the campaign Sciences en marche and it shows that they have pocketed nearly six billion euros this year. The blue line shows the number of jobs created in research. Yes, it’s actually falling as the payouts rise. What a scam!
And, as Cash Investigation shows with stories of employee suicides, boot-camp-style training programmes and factory closures, human capital is squeezed to boost the bottom line.
This search for immediate financial gratification is all part of the tendency to growing inequality, noted by Occupy campaigners, Russell Brand, Oxfam, Thomas Piketty (I’m on page 183 – apparently better than most ebook readers who don’t seem to have got much past page 26 – how far have you got?) … anyone with eyes to see, really.
According to Piketty, the trend in Europe and America is a reversal of a trend that lasted from 1770 to 1990.
The ideological justification for this, the self-serving greed-is-good rhetoric of the political right, has, as can be seen in the ex-troika’s dealings with Greece, become the dogma of the global elite, whether represented by the “Socialist” Dominique Strauss-Kahn or the Sarkozy-worshipper Christine Lagarde.
Today we see the same tendency to the reduction of public spending, stigmatisation of the poor and their increased impoverishment, rising inequality and a rise in the share taken by profit all over Europe and the US.
All this is accompanied by an ideological war on taxation – coopting the middle and working classes into the destruction of social solidarity – and social engineering – privatisation of social housing and the encouragement of home ownership, employee-shareholder schemes and other forms of non-salary pay, hierarchies in the workplace and career structures that pit workers against each other, all of which have the effect of undermining the concept of the collective.
But an ideology only becomes dominant if it suits those who call the world’s political tune.
The rich are reverting to type because they no longer fear revolution
The limited income redistribution that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries was no more an ideological decision than is its current reversal.
Nor were today’s “democratic values”, living standards and social welfare systems handed down by an enlightened elite, reared on a benign Western cultural tradition, as claimed by the political successors of the men who ordered the troops out at Peterloo, had union organisers murdered in the US, butchered the Paris communards and Lyon’s Canut insurrectionists and embarked on the “civilising mission” of colonialism.
Every social and political advance was bitterly resisted, usually with the same brutality that reappeared in the Thatcher government’s showdown with the British miners in 1984.
The modern social welfare state was the product of class struggle, its precursors created primarily by trade unions and other working-class organisations and adapted to capitalism’s needs when it proved necessary to take the edge of the class struggle.
But, according to Piketty’s graph, all this went into reverse in 1990. Why would that be?
To start with, and I know I’m not the first to say this, the labour movement in Europe and the US isn’t what it used to be.
I live in what used to be known as the ceinture rouge, the red belt around Paris, a bastion of the French Communist Party, whose political and trade union base was to be found in big factories like Renault Billancourt, now closed, its site now apparently destined to become an “isle of all the arts”. The factories are no more, the Communist Party has about 70,000 paid-up members, compared to 800,000 in 1946, and the unions, while still pretty shouty in that famous French way, are divided and weakened.
The British unions are similarly weakened and the Labour Party has had its class content surgically removed – no longer one half of a two-party system that reflected the struggle between capital and labour but a competitor in a political game show with an ever-expanding number of players.
Both in Europe and the US the unions have seen their power greatly diminished. The nature of employment in the most advanced economies has deprived them of the means to inflict serious financial damage on major employers with a few exceptions. The conditions that Marx said made the proletariat the gravediggers of capitalism – the collectivism that arose from the industrial process – have been substantially changed in these countries both by accident and design.
In the US today, according to Piketty, 18% of the workforce is employed in manufacturing and 80% in services, while in France the figures are 21% and 76%. Even if the big shift has been the decline in agricultural employment, manufacturing employment stood at 33% in both the US and France in 1950 and services at 50% and 35% respectively.
Of course, the working class has not been abolished. The “knowledge economy” is a fantasy dreamt up by people who apparently haven’t noticed that they are sitting in glass, concrete and steel offices, typing on computers manufactured from steel, plastic and rare earths. But the proletariat does to a large extent seem to have moved east and, even there, is more dispersed and more at the mercy of the movement of globalised capital than its predecessor of a century ago.
And more and more labour is going to be replaced by computerised technology, as John Lanchester indicates in The London Review of Books. He cites an Oxford University study that estimates that 47% of US jobs are “potentially automatable” . So it’s bye-bye telemarketers, insurance underwriters, mathematical technicians, sewers (hand) and title examiners, abstractors and searchers. It will be mainly low-wage, low-skilled jobs that will go, the study finds.
“So the poor will be hurt, the middle will do slightly better than it has been doing, and the rich – surprise! – will be fine,” comments Lanchester.
Given that Le Monde newspaper recently used a computer programme to produce some of its coverage of departmental election results and that Lanchester himself reproduces an article written entirely by computer, I find his prognosis a trifle optimistic so far as my own trade is concerned and the list of skills that are likely to vanish indicates that the middle is likely to be increasingly squeezed worldwide.
Of course, the replacement of human labour by machines, the squeezing of wages and the destruction of the welfare state will all vastly reduce markets and be against the long-term interests of capitalism as a system. But those markets were for the most part created by processes that the capitalists themselves resisted, both individually and collectively, and are being destroyed by the immediate concern for the bottom line that is the motor force of private enterprise.
Piketty attributes some of the 20th century’s redistribution of wealth to the effects of two world wars and the 1918 flu epidemic but I doubt if any of us are hoping for similar cataclysms to create labour shortages and disperse inherited wealth.
In my view the key constraint on capital’s unrestrained greed in the 20th century – the principal reason why the welfare state and the social-democratic compromise was conceded – is overlooked or understated by most commentators.
It was fear of revolution.
And, although its full implications are taking time to filter into the bourgeois brain, that fear is no more.
From 1918 to 1989 an alternative economic system to capitalism existed. It turned out not to lead to the liberation of humanity, to put it mildly, but, ironically, it did oblige capitalism to render itself more acceptable. The US’s propagandists even enrolled abstract expressionism and avant-garde theatre in their efforts to portray the West as the home of freedom but, above all, some of the massive wealth that was being created was invested in providing the mass of the people in the rich, metropolitan democracies with higher living standards than their Russian, east European or Chinese counterparts.
Those days are over. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc and China’s conversion to capitalism there’s no need to do that any more – hence austerity as dogma.
Although the 2008 crash brought an end to the post-1989 ideological euphoria, it has not stopped the austerity onslaught.
And why should it?
Consciously or unconsciously, the ruling elite does not feel that its hold on power is under threat, either ideologically or materially.
So maybe Marx’s theory of increasing misery – of all his predictions the one that seemed to be most definitively disproved by the reality of the 20th century – was not so daft after all.