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Gordon Campbell: The Games, & exporting democracy

Gordon Campbell on the Games, and progress in exporting democracy

Reportedly, Scotland and Wales are sending their teams to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, while Canada and New Zealand are still delaying team departures, until sufficient progress is evident. Unwittingly, the Games are serving as a pretty good analogy for the tatty state of the Commonwealth itself.

It's hard to think why anyone would regard the Commonwealth as anything but a symbol of a bygone era – and equally, it seems the height of foolishness to treat it as an entity worth spending billions to celebrate. Some observers have lamented that if the Games in Delhi end up being cancelled it would mean the end of the Commonwealth Games altogether. Not such a bad outcome, surely. And fitting that this last vestige of the old Empire should come tumbling down out in the modern centre of the old Raj.

It is hard to make a case for staggering on regardless. Anyone with a teenage child on the team for instance, would need to be thinking twice about exposing them to Delhi’s triple threat. Because if the terrorists don’t get them, the accommodation, hygiene or event facilities may well do. Any survivors could then qualify for the bronze medal, and succumb to the wave of dengue fever now sweeping the Indian capital.

A few armchair critics have been trying to claim that the athletes – they’re professionals after all – should buckle down and toughen up. Rubbish. Being a professional athlete doesn’t mean settling for filthy accommodation, collapsing venue facilities and lapses in security. Professionalism should extend to the officials and organisers as well. That’s why, in tennis, John McEnroe was such a salutary source of high pressure criticism of the bumbling mandarins who used to run Wimbledon like their own personal fief. Basically, there should be no pressure on any athlete to put up with sub-standard accommodation, venues or security arrangements. Period.

Moreover… why should anyone risk their health and future career for the sake of the Commonwealth Games? Most top athletes no longer rate it as a priority and even if these Games proceed they will do so without many of the star performers – Usain Bolt, etc – who might have made it special. As an event, it isn’t a mini-Olympics, yet it has to pretend that it is – in order to drag viewers in for the television coverage that makes it possible to conduct the spectacle on its current wildly inflated scale. For New Zealand one of the main echoes of the bygone colonial order is that it is one of the few major international sporting events where we can still hope to win a few medals – just as we did before professionalism caught up with the old colonial outposts of Africa and the sub-continent.

Let it die. The economics don’t stack up, and the Commonwealth Games no longer have a valid reason to exist in the modern era.


Iraq, Afghanistan

Talking of the days of Empire, how is democracy faring in the wake of George Bush’s military adventures? Not too well, actually. In Iraq, the country held an election on March 7, but there is still no functioning government. In Afghanistan, the country held elections last week, amid signs of massive electoral fraud and ballot stuffing. If anything. as the Economist magazine says, the situation is worse than at last year’s rigged election.

That’s mainly because – in the wake of the debacle in 2009, Afghan president Hamid Karzai fired the quasi-independent Electoral Complaints Commission that had criticised him for the casting of one million fraudulent votes. Karzai then gave himself the power to appoint his supporters. Not surprisingly, Karzai and his allies in NATO and Washington have now trumpeted last week’s parliamentary elections as a resounding success. There has been excited talk of a 40% voter turnout. Yet as this report from on the ground by Martine van Bijlert asks – that would be 40% of what, exactly?

Answer: the 40% had nothing to do with turnout. It merely represented the votes cast as a percentage of the ballot papers handed out. It could just as easily have been an index of the scale of the electoral fraud. Van Bijlert shows why the trend lines are all bad:

So they seem to have counted the total number of ballots that were given out (and only those that were given to polling stations that reported turnout on polling day) and divided them by the total number of votes cast at these polling stations. That is not a turnout figure. It just tells you that 40% of the distributed ballots were used.

For anyone who wonders how this tallies with past elections, here is a short list to refresh our memories (and don’t forget these totals represent the number of ballots cast. There is no way to know how many voters these figures represent):

2004: 7.4 million (first presidential election)

2005: 6.4 million (first parliamentary and provincial council election)

2009: 4.8 million (presidential, post-audit) / 6.0 million (provincial council)

2010: 3.6 million (parliamentary election)

The declining trend signifies several things, most prominently a growing disillusionment and disengagement with the process, and the impact of a worsening security situation; but also factors such as a decrease in the number of ballots distributed (during the first presidential election 18 million ballots were printed) and a decrease in the number of polling centres. Basically there were less opportunities to cast ballots - either through a genuine vote, or through the various forms of electoral fraud.

To my mind, the more interesting story about Afghanistan in the last fortnight has been about its Internet plans. That story is in two parts. Kabul’s plans for its Internet routing through (gasp!) Iran is set out here and is continued here.

In other words, while the US has its armed forces in Afghanistan to prop up the Karzai government in the name of the war against terrorism, and we have dutifully followed suit and put our own soldiers in harms way in that cause. Yet the Karzai regime is quietly staking its digital communications future on a nation whose Revolutionary Guards are on the US list of terrorist entities. And whose leader is routinely demonised as the US media as the nation’s Enemy Number One in the Middle East. Go figure.

What the computing deal between Kabul and Teheran also underlines is the folly of trying to solve by military means the terrorist threat allegedly posed by the return of the Taliban. In reality, at least three of the four nations that sit on Afghanistan’s borders (ie Russia, Iran and India) have a very strong regional interest in keeping the Taliban on a short leash. Russia regards the Taliban as a source of infection for its own Muslim minorities. India would, for obvious reasons, combat any threat posed in Kashmir by a Pakistan-controlled Taliban regime. And Shia Iran has little sympathy for the Sunni extremists in the Taliban, who are useful to Teheran only temporarily, as a way of tying down the Americans. Even right now, Iran is plainly and pragmatically happy to do business with whoever is in power in Kabul.

Meaning: if foreign military forces were withdrawn immediately, NATO, the US and countries such as New Zealand could safely and inexpensively combat from outside the country any terrorist threat posed by a Taliban regime. Especially when Afghanistan’s neighbours would bring their own regional interests and trading clout to bear on whoever replaces Hamid Karzai as our puppet in Kabul. Sending in the gunboats may have been how the Empire used to operate – but that approach really doesn’t work anymore.


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