“Blood sucking bats” – a reminder that politics is a lot tougher elsewhere

I can’t say I’m enjoying being involved in Australian politics much at the moment, but whenever I’m at risk of getting too maudlin about it, there’s always plenty of reminders that politics is a hell of a lot tougher and more difficult in many other parts of the world.

One example came with the recent sitting of the new Afghanistan Parliament. One newly elected member of that Parliament is Malalia Joya, a woman in her 20s. She achieved media coverage in 2003 when she criticised the ongoing role of former warlords, calling them criminals. That got her some death threats at the time, and now she is sharing a new Parliament with some of the same people who were behind those death threats. However, that doesn’t appeared to have quietened her, if this report on the ABC’s website is anything to go by:

One of Afghanistan’s new MPs blasted the warlords among parliamentarians sworn today, calling them “blood sucking bats” and demanding the United States apologise for supporting them in the past. Malalai Joya, aged about 27, called on like-minded members of the first Parliament after three decades of war and extremist Taliban rule to join her stance against the warlords and drugs barons she said were in the new assembly. “I see the future of this Parliament as very dark because of the presence of warlords, drug lords and those whose hands are stained with the blood of the people,” she told reporters. “The men and women of my country are like broken-winged pigeons caught in the claws of blood-sucking bats after being released from the Taliban cages,” Joya said after the swearing-in ceremony attended by US Vice President Dick Cheney.
“Most of these bats are in the Parliament now,” she said. “If I stand up, if you stand up, everyone will stand up. If I knelt, if you knelt, who would stand up? Who then should fight the enemy, the cowardly enemy?” she asked, quoting from a popular Persian poem.

This item from The Times website gives a bit more detail on Afghanistan’s situation. It is their first elected Parliament since 1973, and whilst it would obviously be preferable not to have any so-called warlords involved in the new Parliament, it is easy to see how it might create even more difficulty to try to exclude all such people – especially if you tried to define precisely what a ‘warlord’ is in a country that’s been racked by various forms of civil unrest for over 3 decades.

Unlike Afghanistan, and a large majority of other countries in the world, Australia has had the amazing good fortune to have had a continuous parliamentary democracy for over a century – one of (I think) only 6 countries in the world to do so. The fact that democracy is clearly so fragile and we have been so lucky in our country in some ways makes me even more irritated when I see the blithe and calculated manner in which these parliamentary processes and protections are being trashed at the moment. It’s not as if we don’t have the experience to know any better, or enough other examples of how easily things can decline once basic standards are eroded. Parliamentary experiences here and elsewhere also serve as a reminder that there is a lot more to a functional and effective democracy than just having elections every now and then.

It is worth noting that Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, is quoted as saying the new, democratically-elected Parliament is a “step toward democracy” – a pretty clear example that there’s a lot more to a genuine democracy than just having an election.

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  1. This is so true. Many commentators and political scientists often talk about the ‘westernisation’ of developing-world political systems and societies, but recently we have seen quite a bit of ‘colonialisation’ of politics in the democracies like Australia.

    Australians take so much for granted that the executive can do pretty much as it pleases and few people bat an eyelid. They simply assume the government is working for their benefit or the collective interest, as it always has in the past. This assumption and the political lethargy that goes with it gives way to the ‘government knows best’ attitude – the very colonial paternalism that persists in so many former colonies where independence is yet to be accompanied by full liberal democracy. People like Joya are inspiring because they care and fight so much – for something most Australians never even think about.

    I’ve taught politics in first year university level, and most of the 18/19 yr olds that come through never thought about it much. I think in that regard there’s something to be said for political education in schools. We now spend so much time sheltering children from truth – and that includes democracy itself. It’s a very different situation to that in the past. The people in Australian history knew a lot about politics and faught very hard and passionately for their collective as well as individual interest – that’s what made Australia one of these paragons of liberal democracy. Now we only have an elite group in society (on all sides of politics) who are actually interested and know how it works. That’s colonialism at work.

    A friend said to me last week that us ‘progressives’ are very demoralised and depressed right now. But that that is now Howard works – he depresses the people so they don’t fight back. Maybe this is true. But unlike Joya, we are also comfortable enough to be depressed. Depression in that respect is a bit of a luxury that we can ill afford.

  2. Hamid Karzai is correct in saying “it is a step towards democracy”. As Madeline Albright recently stated, “Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside”. All Afghanistan has at the moment, is a system of government that the USA has determined they will have, that allows them to vote. Whether it actually becomes a democracy will be determined over the next few elections in the years to come.

  3. Last week a commentator put up Canada, UK, US, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia as the six with continuous parliamentary democracy for over a century, later a letter writer chided the commentator for not adding in New Zealand which makes seven.

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