Runoff Rituals

03/18/2010 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

In the huge, over-warm tent at Kabul's Polytechnical University, before Afghan presidential candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah announced that he would "not participate in the election," a qari sang verses from the holy Qur'an. He sang, tremulous, sad as funeral bells, for several minutes. Foreign correspondents yawned, white bearded oldsters adjusted their hats, a clutch of headscarved women whispered in their designated seats off to stage right. Though the wires had broken his intention to boycott the presidential runoff the night before, everyone seemed eager to get past the rituals, get to the point, and hear what Dr. Abdullah had to say.

The large crowd--public and media--had been waiting in the tent for over an hour that morning. All the faded blue chairs, stretching back half a football field, were occupied, but at ten thirty they still faced nothing but an empty stage and an enormous banner. The banner featured a softly pensive Abdullah and, in four languages, the phrase: "no government without election can be standable and lawful."

The election in question had been in crisis since it took place, on August 20th. Especially given the rise in violence since, and the Taliban threats against those associated with the process, Afghans and foreigners alike were eager, after two months, to be finished with the runoff vote. Or, as most of the students I spoke with at Kabul University last week said, to not vote at all, and move on. No one could move on, though, until Abdullah gave his speech. The crowd craned its neck as the qari finished and dark suited Abdullah, with his large retinue of advisors and bodyguards, walked toward the stage.

In Dari, the Afghan language in which Abdullah spoke, verbs tend to come at the end of a sentence. And his speech reflected this -- the punch line came late. Abdullah did not say whether he would participate in the election until the very end. Speaking for approximately an hour, he said first that elections were essential to the country. He rested, at times theatrically, upon Afghanistan's thirty years of war. He condemned divisive suggestions like: "those who vote for Dr. Abdullah, their houses should be burned down." He told a story concerning an old man who had sold land to campaign on his behalf, but ultimately, asked him to boycott the fraudulent election. He talked several times about widows and orphans. Abdullah's supporters, bussed in from around the country, interrupted periodically with calls of support. In response, the rest of the assembled crowd chanted "god is great." The crowd also waved blue flags, pumped its fists in the air, and quieted quickly when Abdullah nodded and resumed speaking.

The notion of politics as theater is famous -- so old, maybe, that it should not be discouraging anymore. Long before The New York Times wrote op-eds comparing the Iraq war to a Hollywood blockbusters, Antony called Brutus an honorable man. But between the qari and the chanting supporters, the old metaphor came to mind. It was hard not to think of Abdullah himself as singing a song in some larger play. He denied, later, that his decision was "in exchange for anything from anybody, but only and purely in the interests of the people of Afghanistan and to give the people of Afghanistan a chance to move on."

Maybe. In the meat of his speech, towards the end, Abdullah described negotiations with his rival, President Hamid Karzai. To no one's surprise, they had failed. Abdullah had asked for the removal of the head of the Independent Election Commission and several other officials. Karzai had rejected the request. If there would be an election, it would have the same infrastructure and officials as the first, extravagantly corrupt though it was. Abdullah said he was pained. "These conditions could have been met in one hour," he insisted, "if the intention of the president was transparency."

Through a translator, as a novice student of the country, it is hard to reach conclusions about the political nuances of a speech. But Abdullah's suggestion that there could be a quick resolution, that anything could be solved in an hour, struck me as strange, dangerous. The political process here seems to take a long time. When there is finality at high speed, it seems very closely associated with violence.

Maybe this is one reason the qari sings at the beginning of a speech, though all are bored, waiting, eager for an already leaked headline. Perhaps two and a half months of investigations and accusations of fraud -- about an election that few thought Karzai would ever lose -- was ritual itself. Inshallah, it was more than that.