Giving Afghans (and More) a Vote in Britain's Election

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An Afghan woman in Kabul votes during her country's presidential election on August 20, 2009.

In late April, if all goes according to plan, a resident of Kabul will fold up a paper ballot and push in into an empty box. It will mark the first time an Afghan citizen will have voted — for a candidate in the United Kingdom.

That's the idea behind an initiative called Give Your Vote, in which U.K. citizens will voluntarily give up their votes in the parliamentary elections expected to take place May 6 to residents in the developing world. The aim is less to tip the British elections one way or the other than to highlight the limitations of local decision-making in an increasingly interconnected world. "Right now, the people making decisions on things like climate change aren't getting their authority from the guy in Bangladesh whose house is being flooded," says James Sadri, one of the founders of Egality, the British activist group behind the project. "But what if the politicians did have to answer to these people? Would it change their position on climate change, poverty and war?"

Here's how the program, which launches on March 15, will work: British volunteers will pose questions from people in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana to U.K. parliamentary candidates at town hall meetings or through party offices, and the answers will then be discussed on television and radio in each of the three countries. A week before the U.K. vote, Egality will hold an American Idol-style election in the countries, in which people will cast votes for their preferred U.K. party — Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat. The following week, British citizens who decide to participate in the program — organizers are hoping for a few thousand — will receive a text message from Egality telling them how to cast their ballot. The votes will be doled out based on the proportion each party received in the overseas elections.

The idea came to Sadri in 2008, when he was studying Arabic in Damascus. He and his housemates — a group of Iraqi refugees — were watching Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, debate his opponent John McCain on the war in Iraq. "It just seemed bizarre that this supposedly big democratic moment in the United States was missing such a vital component — the voice of the Iraqi people themselves," says Sadri. "National democracy is all very well if you're a strong country like the U.S. or the U.K. But if you live in a relatively weak state, you can have a democracy that's as effective as you want, and you still won't have a voice on a lot of the key issues that affect you."

Take the issue of global warming. During the climate summit in Copenhagen in December, the biggest rifts were between the rich countries most responsible for global warming and the developing nations where its effects will be hardest felt. Representatives from poor countries attempted to raise the stakes by staging a walkout. But when a deal was finally struck, it was the major polluters — the U.S. and China — who dominated the discussion, not the world's smallest and least developed states.

For residents of the U.K., dealing with climate change means accepting a higher price on everything from gasoline to electricity. In crowded, low-lying Bangladesh, it means trying to avoid catastrophic flooding. Atique Chowdhury, Give Your Vote's organizer in Dhaka, is a self-described climate refugee, a former resident of an island near the Bay of Bengal that has been almost completely abandoned because of rising sea levels. "As a major emitter of carbon dioxide, the U.K. must take the responsibility," he says. But developing nations still want a say on how that's done.

Expanding the U.K. election debate to people in the developing world could yield insights that ordinary British voters might not have. "Notoriously, at election time, nobody talks about global issues," says May Abdalla, who is coordinating the program in London. "It's all very parochial." There's even a chance the initiative could inspire a renewed interest in British democracy. "It's kind of re-energizing," says Onyeka Igwe, a documentary filmmaker in London who heard about the project on Facebook and plans to participate. "Giving up my vote actually makes me feel like my vote has more power than if it was just me voting."

Yet giving a U.K. vote to people in far-flung countries may not yield a predictable result. When the Economist ran an online poll for people around the world to pick their preferred U.S. presidential candidate in 2008, Iraq was one of the few countries that favored McCain over Obama. In the U.K., there are no differences among the major parties on the country's Afghanistan policy — and certainly no big-name politicians calling for the 9,000 British troops to be pulled out. But that doesn't mean the U.K.'s newest voters won't have an opinion on the mission. "Right now, all the aid money is being spent in the conflict areas," says Reza Khateb, a program volunteer in Kabul. "If you spend your money in the secure areas, it will be more visible to the people."

"We've been affected by the U.K. politicians for 200 years," he adds. This year, it might be the other way around.