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Finding Inspiration for Afghanistan in America's Election

Two weeks ago, I was standing among a throng of students in Hotung Café at Tufts University—a crowd burning in anticipation to learn the outcome of the presidential election.

I had left my quiet dorm room just ten minutes before with a friend of mine, after finishing my assignments, to witness this historic moment.

The area was packed; I could only cram into the room by jostling and shoving other students aside. The predictions for most of the eastern and southern states had already been announced; Governor Romney had a marginal lead over President Obama. After a while, the emcee announced that CNN’s prediction for Ohio, one of the key swing states, was out. Breaths were held, dead silence prevailed, and all eyes were fixed on the two TV screens.


In my mind I was transported back to the Afghan presidential elections in 2009.

The number of candidates was 22 times the number running in the American elections – 44 candidates – yet the thrill of the election was barely noticeable. In fact, I don’t even recall following the news about it. No matter how many candidates there were to choose from, there was little faith that any of them could or would bring much change.

Unlike in the U.S., the dominant political system in Afghanistan is one based on religious ideas and ethnic politics. This situation hinders even the most astute politicians from making much progress without bringing a complete revolution, an agenda that I believed none of the candidates promoted.

A ballot from Afghanistan's election in 2009. This one is from a polling station in Kandahar (Photo: Reuters)
A ballot from Afghanistan's election in 2009. This one is from a polling station in Kandahar (Photo: Reuters)

The U.S. presidential election had sparked many debates on campus over the issues of foreign and domestic policies. Many Tufts friends — both Republican and Democrat — constantly debated the varying issues. I too enjoyed enthusiastically engaging in discussions on American policies towards Middle East, China, or different regions in the world. At times I even dared to comment on the domestic policies of the two candidates. Passions on campus ran high.

In contrast, in 2009 most Afghans didn’t think their voices or votes mattered. The estimated voter turnout was a mere 30 to 35 percent. Many people in the rural areas were utterly oblivious to the elections, partly due to lack of media access and partly because the Afghan government plays no tangible role in their lives. Afghanistan may have been a “democracy” in structure, but due to the illiteracy and isolation of millions, a true democracy would be hard to establish.


“The 18 electoral votes from Ohio go to President Obama.”

The whole room exploded in exhilaration. “Obama, Obama, Obama,” the crowd roared, “Four more years, four more years, four more years.” I found that I also was standing there beside my American and international friends cheering for Obama.

Video from election night at Tufts University, by student Angela Sun

Tufts University Election Night Extravaganza 2012 from asun2013 on Vimeo.

I too was excited, but not because I truly embraced or even understood many of his domestic or international policies, or because I was against Governor Romney’s proposed strategies. I didn’t even agree with all of President Obama’s policies in the Middle East or Afghanistan. The reason was something more intimate.

The hope I felt was that one day I could be standing in a similar room in Afghanistan among the thunderous roar of people. People who were as equally excited about their own future.

America’s elections aren’t perfect, nor were its candidates. But I felt hope that one day Afghanistan could have candidates as capable and motivated as both President Obama and Governor Romney. I had hope for a leader who was not chosen due to ethnicity or religious sect, or who he was related to, but because of the potential he had for holding the office. I had hope that one day we too would have a free and fair election.

Afghanistan may have a long road ahead to tackle the issues of corruption and Taliban control, and to create the capacity for an authentic democracy, but for that one brief moment Obama’s victory rekindled my belief that anything was possible.

His victory speech wasn’t just to the American people, but to me and other Afghans of my generation.

President Obama gives his victory speech on election night (Photo: Reuters)
President Obama gives his victory speech on election night (Photo: Reuters)

When Obama challenged us to cherish “the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression; the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope,” he gave me inspiration that we too could move forward. I identified with Obama’s messages, as they were the mottos I wished my countrymen held: hope, change, and moving forward.

Our hopes need not remain buried under the ruins of war by Kalashnikovs, tanks, and bomb explosions. We, too, could move forward. If we only believe we could.