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Does Democracy have a future in Afghanistan?

Flaws in election process casting doubts
Arif Shiri
Saturday 19 September 2009

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edited by Emily Withers

The recent official birth of democracy in Afghanistan has introduced a few questions regarding the new government’s success and the way in which the presidential elections have been handled. Most commentators and scholars have never analyzed the broader picture of the contemporary political situation in Afghanistan, viewing it from individual perspectives and ignoring political ideologies. In other words, most scholars have adopted a position of historical description rather than using social scientific explanations. This article will offer a third explanation, based on different approaches of political theories. It will analyze the role of actors in contemporary Afghan affairs like the media, newspapers, journalists’ reports and individuals’ speech, with the aim of engaging with other commentators and scholars on Afghan domestic politics. I will evaluate and question the democratic government of Afghanistan and the role of the international community in Afghanistan. Will Afghanistan survive as a democracy after its second presidential election, held August 20th 2009? How much democracy has been planted, and what does this election really mean for all Afghans?

In the first part of the article, I will critically analyze Professor Ali A. Jalali’s optimistic view of democracy in Afghanistan, as well as the views of other scholars who have simply given up hopes of winning due to the opposition of the Taliban regime. In the second part, I will question whether democracy exists in Afghanistan, and if so, on what grounds. In the third part, the focus will be placed on political participation in the presidential election. In the fourth part, this article outlines the future of democracy in Afghanistan: whether it will be possible to stabilize the Afghan government, and whether the Afghan government and international community should negotiate with the Taliban regime. Finally, my conclusion is reached.

What is a “free” society?

For clarification, the concept of democracy does not mean only “freedom of speech” or freedom of ‘social desire,’ as most people in Islamic states, especially Afghanistan, understand it. Instead, it is a combination of the following: Firstly, democracy is based on individuals’ liberty, such as “positive and negative freedom.” These freedoms allow us to be “free to” and “free from.” They allow us to exercise our freedom as long as we do not harm other people; they allow us to be free from other individuals or groups of people. Secondly, the concept of democracy means that we as individuals are free to exercise our civil and political rights. It is believed that only these rights can be exercised under the democratic umbrella. It is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. A government can only be labeled democratic if all citizens of a specific country, within a defined boundary, can participate in a “free and fair” general election. The question is, have the previous presidential and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan been free, fair, and without ethnic discrimination?

The theoretical explanations of scholars on Afghan affairs are very important. These theories offer broader explanations to the current political situation in Afghanistan— individual accounts may not report and deliver an unbiased message to the wider community. For instance, a governmental official or a member of the Taliban regime may not say what he or she means in a speech or interview, so it is our part to analyze and understand what is really meant.

The politics of negotiating with the Taliban

Most of the scholars who write about Afghan domestic issues, such as whether the government should negotiate and talk with the Taliban regime, write from one perspective of the society, forgetting to add other points of view. Recently, this issue has been viewed positively, with the assumption that through negotiation, the government can create divisions between open-minded ‘Talib’ and the extremist members of the regime. Most of the commentators in the West agreed to follow this strategy before taking into consideration that these were personal points of view. As a commentator, I disagree with negotiating with a regime that continually violates human rights and is responsible for mass killing. My reasons will be evaluated in the last paragraph.

The roles of social scientists are important within international relations. Daily politics in Afghanistan have been misunderstood by the international community. Firstly, daily politics have been shaped by the behavior of, and understanding of, individual politics. Resulting from the long civil war, the shape of Afghan politics has been transformed to ethnic-nationalism. Secondly, the birth of the Taliban regime and its violence against women and ethnic minorities, specifically the Hazara,, has made it more difficult for pro-democratic Afghans to fight against foreign fundamentalists, who have been operating within Afghan society.

An optimist’s view

Professor Ali A. Jalali has been very optimistic about the current situation in Afghanistan. In his articles, he states that the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan were the final event of the internationally-sponsored Bonn Accords of December 2001. During the past four years, Jalali says, Afghanistan has made significant progress toward democracy while reconstructing the country’s political, social, and security institutions. These include adopting an enlightened constitution (January 2004), holding a successful presidential election (October 2004) and parliamentary elections (September 2005), while creating a national army and a national police force, dismantling major factional militia units, building a national economy from ground zero, expanding and improving a formal education system, and improving the status and future of Afghan women (Ali A. Jalali 2006, pg. 1). Jalali is correct to claim that Afghanistan has moved forward towards a democratic government. However, there are still many stages the government should pass through before the democratic system is fully operative, before Afghanistan can be called a liberal democratic state.

In terms of international democratic values, Afghanistan’s political system requires amendments to be made to satisfy the conditions of democracy. For example, civil war has made conditions very difficult for us to decide whether we should question if the October 2004 election was indeed “free and fair.” Most critics argue that the presidential election was based on ethnic-nationalist politics and that many votes were traded between individuals and the warlords. This indicates that since the end of the Cold War, Afghanistan’s internal politics shifted from an ideological-party system to individual-nationalism.

Seeking common ground in an ethnically divided culture

A majority of the political parties have been based on a biased representation of certain ethnic interests rather than on ideological common ground. Segregated ethnic politics has to change— from a splintered, individualist form to well-organized political parties— if the society hopes for a more democratic and transparent government. It is true that Afghan elites adopted this presidential system for the country, but I believe the government should do more to solve this problem. There are two options in solving this issue. The first option is to educate all Afghan citizens, making education compulsory like European countries. This requires a long-term strategy, and the government needs a huge budget to achieve it. As we know, the government does not have a grand strategy to do this, and this would be impossible to achieve in the short-term, as it requires economic growth. Also, it is difficult to change the mentality of the older generation, who aged during wartime. The second option is to make changes to the political system. This option allows the government to tackle the issue quicker and less expensively, and the parties will be accountable for the outcomes of their policies and decisions.

The following are factors that the government should take it into account while aiming for a better and more democratic government: According to a 2009 survey, 9 out of 10 participants said that they will vote for the presidential candidate who represents their ethnicity. Consequently, any candidate who belongs to an ethnic majority, such as Pashtun, which is estimated to constitute 50 percent of the population, will automatically win the presidential election. The chance to win the presidential election is very small for non-Pashtun candidates. No matter what policies these candidates (like Dr. Ramazan Bashardost, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and others like them) may have for the country, they will likely lose. Though this voting behavior has been conditioned by a bloody national history, civil war, and a lack of education, it presents a challenge to the success of democratic government in Afghanistan.
In order to change this voting behavior in future Afghan presidential elections, there are two options.

The first option is to wait and hope that people’s mentality towards other ethnicities will change, and that eventually the political system in Afghanistan may shift to non-ethnic politics. Moreover, one must remain optimistic that these individual candidates may adopt policies that would benefit all Afghans rather than focusing solely on ethnic interests.

The second option is to convince the political parties to form a new stance based on the political spectrum. It would be more organized if political parties would choose only one candidate to run for election. In this process, parties will be held responsible and accountable for their candidate’s actions because they will be concerned about their reputation, which has an effect on the party’s gains and losses. Through this political system, the parties will choose their top candidate for the post. Then the competition will be between the political parties, who choose policies according to their political stance, instead of individual candidates. The chosen candidate will be suitable to the post because he or she must achieve the majority of the party’s votes. Allowing any individual to register as a presidential candidate can be confusing to the electorate— there were 41 names on the August, 2009 ballot paper.

The importance of political parties

Afghanistan and the US are both run through a presidential system, but there are obvious differences. Firstly, democracy in Afghanistan is new and in the initial stages of development, whereas the US is the leading and oldest democracy, beginning with the election of its first president in 1789. The US is a federal system, which means that power is divided between the national government and the states. But in Afghanistan, the power is shared between the president, MPs, and other legislators. However, Afghanistan can adopt elements of the United States’ political system. In US elections, un-elected individuals are involved in the process of choosing their party’s candidate for presidency before the general election, and can participate and wield influence in the election’s outcome. The issue with the current system in Afghanistan is not only the behavior of individuals who choose to vote on the basis of ethnicity, but that political circumstances have actually caused this behavior. In order to avoid these circumstances, political parties must be organized on the political spectrum.

In order to evaluate and analyze the outcomes of the August 20, 2009 presidential election, the following few points will be examined: a) the previous general election, b) the candidates for the presidential post and, c) the future of democracy in Afghanistan.

Previous General Election

According to the BBC website, “the road to democracy in Afghanistan was opened following the overthrow of the hard-line Taliban regime in 2001. The Western governments backed a new leader, Hamid Karzai, and promised elections to underpin efforts to rebuild the country” (BBC, 09/10/2004.) It is true that Western governments have played a key role in democratization in Afghanistan since 2001, although the first aim of the US was not to focus on nation-building when the Bush administration called for military intervention. The Bush administration aimed to destroy the enemy (Al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama Bin-Laden, and the Taliban regime) before they re-attacked the US mainland. However, the US engagement in a war with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime has given Afghan society the opportunity to exercise their political rights under a democratic umbrella.

According to historian Thomas J. Barfield (2005), the government of Afghanistan held a “successful election” even though the country lacks security. His arguments focus on: the efforts of the Afghan government to produce a successful election in a country that still lacks security; the historical background of the rise and fall of the Taliban; the selection of Hamid Karzai to form the interim government of post-Taliban Afghanistan; the holding of parliamentary elections in a country with no firm foundation for party politics; highlights of the election campaign and its outcomes; and the political initiatives of Karzai as legitimizing his electoral victory. Barfield, in focusing on the post-Taliban era when Karzai was selected as temporary president from 2001-2004, acknowledges that the government managed to hold a ‘successful election’ while facing security threats from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. According to the BBC, in the previous presidential election of 2004, over 10.5 million Afghans registered and voted. Forty-one percent of the registered voters were women. It clearly shows that Afghanistan has been moving forward towards a democratic state, allowing all citizens, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, and language to participate during the election and exercise their political rights.

Unqualified Presidential Candidates

Currently, the voting system allows individuals who are unqualified to vote to register their names and do so. Similarly, according to the Independent Election Commission, the number of registered candidates reached 41— including current President Hamid Karzai— many among whom were unqualified candidates. For example, in an interview with Breaking News 24/7, Azizullah Lodin, the head of Afghanistan’s election commission (AEC), disappointedly said “I personally feel ashamed when I ask someone ‘are you literate?’ and he says no. I ask if he has a professional background, and he says no. I ask if he was a mullah in a mosque, and he says no. And now he comes and registers himself and he wants to be president of Afghanistan. This is really shameful.” This is not the only issue that the AEC has been facing. The political system allows corrupted politicians to participate and work at the highest level of government because individuals who do not belong to any political party are not accountable for their actions. If the election system were to insist the presidential candidates run as a member of a party, then they would have to take full responsibility upon winning the general election. As a result, the corruption would disappear and the competition between mainstream parties would take the nation towards economic achievement.

The current political system allowed a former member of the Taliban regime to enter his name on the presidential ballot. This individualization of Afghan politics can be viewed as dangerous, as it has been proven that members of the Taliban have not taken human rights into account, nor have they respected women’s or minorities’ rights. They simply should be excluded from the decision-making process, unless their mentality changes completely and they begin to accept democratic values, individuals’ rights, and are able to pass the criminal trial procedures. Individual politicians should move to the next level of democratization and form a political system based on their ideological beliefs rather than segregated ethnic political parties or individualism. As a result, the party with the majority of the votes will form a new government like the party system in the United Kingdom (for more information on the UK’s political system, see Kavanagh, D, et al (2006), “British Politics”.) Also, this political system offers a better solution to Afghanistan’s current issue of national parliamentary consensus.

Who May be the Next Afghan President

Among 41 candidates, the struggle for power is mainly between a few popular politicians. The strongest challengers to current president Hamid Karzai are Dr. Ramazan Bashardost, a former minister and a member of parliament, former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Zai, a former finance minister, and Ali Ahmed Jalali, the former interior minister and a US based University professor. According to the website Oh My Gov (OMG), supporters of Dr. Bashardost are using this catchy message: "Afghanistan’s Obama, a candidate for change, who will stand against injustice, vows to empower minorities and curtail corruption.” The message, circulating the Internet by a generation of young voters who are campaigning for Dr. Bashardost, questions whether or not Afghan society is ready for a change like the United States. However, it will be very difficult for Dr. Bashardost, who is of Hazara Background, to win the election in a country long dominated by Pashtuns. Meanwhile, there are two women running— 30-year-old Shahla Atta and 40-year-old Frozan Fana— struggling amongst male candidates, hoping to win an election in a place where patriarchy continues to exist within society. The rise of minorities and women is a new hope that predicts change to the face of Afghanistan’s domestic politics.

Even though many changes need to be made, the current situation in Afghanistan is far better than the Taliban regime and Mujahideen eras. At least some basic human right have been developed over the past seven years. One of the most important achievements of the government is the standardization of human rights, especially women’s rights. In Afghan history, women have never had the chance of campaigning for the position of president, and now there are two candidates who are women. Moreover, there are women who hold ministerial offices, but they do struggle against patriarchy at this stage of democracy in Afghanistan.

Should the government negotiate with the Taliban regime?

Many commentators and analysts have posed the question of whether the war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban has been weakening since the Northern Alliance— believing that through negotiation, extremist Pashtun nationalists could be divided from moderate Talib— agreed to speak with the Taliban. Most negotiation supporters believe that these moderate members could change their political stances if the government of Afghanistan would give them a chance. However, I believe that neither the government nor the international community should negotiate with the Taliban regime unless they fully accept and obey the constitution of Afghanistan and the principles of democratic government. These principles are primarily based on the value of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; individual rights, women’s rights, and negative and positive freedom.

The international community has planted democracy in Afghanistan. This will help develop international peace and security, so foreign nations should not give up hope and withdraw troops from Afghanistan. I am aware that Obama’s administration agreed to send more troops to Afghanistan for stabilization of the country, but most media commentators question whether it is worth it to lose the lives of their soldiers to save strangers.

I strongly believe that the international community should not pull their soldiers from Afghanistan. Otherwise, history will repeat itself, and the lives of all Afghans will again be in danger.

1. Ahmed Rashid, (2006), “Afghanistan: Progress Since the Taliban”, Asian Affairs, vol. XXXVII, no. 1
2. Ali A. Jalali (2006), “The Future of Afghanistan”: Parameters, Volume. 36, Issue. 1
3. Anglo, Rasanayagam (2003), Afghanistan: A modern History. London & New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd
4. Arif Shiri (2008), “Afghanistan: Buffer State?”, Global Middle East, 25th September
5. BBC (2004), “Q&A: Democracy in Afghanistan”, Saturday, 9th October
6. Bijan Omrani (2007), “Afghanistan and the Search for Unity”, Asian Affairs, vol. XXXVIII, no. 11, July
7. Chris Sands (2009), “Afghanistan: Chaos Central, as the US ponders doubling its troops, the Taliban rules again”, The Monde Diplomatique, February, p. 16
8. Chris Rowe (no date), ‘Democratization in Afghanistan, human rights & Human Welfare, Review. Retrieved on 20th June 2009 from World Wide Web: http://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/diges...
9. Clint Lorimore and Ryan Clarke (2009), “Obama’s Afghan Arm-Twisting: Weakening Karzai to Give Him Strength”, 27th February
10. Countrywatch (2008), “Afghanistan: Political Overview”, pp. 7-103
11. Gwynne Dyer (2003), “Creating Democracy in Afghanistan Was Doomed From the Start”, 29 December, p. 1-2
12. Kavanagh, D, et al (2006), ‘British Politics’, Oxford, Oxford University Press
13. Meena Nanji (2004), “Democracy in Afghanistan?: An Authoritarian State Is In The Process Of Construction”, 25th February. Retrieved on 10 May 2009 from the World Wide Web: www.countercurrents.org
14. Nassim, Jawad (1992), Afghanistan: A National of Minority, London: British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
15. Nemat Sadat (2009), “Facebook May Determine the Next Afghan President”, 29th June
16. Peace News (2009), “Obama’s trick: Talk peace plan war”, No. 2508, April, p. 1&2
17. Peter, Marsden (2001), Afghanistan: Minorities, Conflicts and the Search for Peace. UK: Minority Rights Group International
18. The Economist (2009), “The War In Afghanistan: A general’s Marching Orders”, 16th May, p. 64
19. The Economist (2009), “Afghanistan’s Elections: Poll Position”, 9th-15th May, p. 63
20. The Economist (2009), “Afghanistan: Reflecting on the Taliban”, 28th March, p. 65
21. The Economist (2009), “Afghanistan: Further Into Taliban Country”, 28th March, p. 66
22. The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (2009), “Afghanistan: The Political Scene”, April, pp. 9-15
23. Vali Nasr (2005), “Islam and Democracy: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Washington, D.C, Friday, 4th November
24. William Astore (2009), “Obama’s Afghanistan?”, The Monde Diplomatique, May, p. 16
25. Zahir Tanin (2009), “At the Security Council Debate on The Situation in Afghanistan”, 19th March, pp. 1-16

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Forum posts

  • democracy have future and work very well in Afghanistan if CIA and American blood sucker live this nation alone and take back there thieves and hotel boy and oil driller to there base CIA head quarter .

    • We simply cannot reach to a rational conclusion if, on the one hand, we have no logical argument or logical thinking on the issue of why the international community is operating in Afghanistan, aren’t they helping to re-build Afghanistan, liberalizing extremists, normalizing peace and security, working with Afghan government and its people to reach on these goals, and industrialising Afghans raw materials within liberal free market. On the other, the question remains on whether Afghan nation/government would be able to use this opportunity to play catch up game on liberal market. Surely, this kind of behaviour like “blood sucker” will certainly not help. Beside, certainly Taliban ideology is totally against Afghan nation building, democracy, Islam, peace and security, human rights etc. Instead, if the international community would not be in Afghanistan, the country would be in a fire, burning itself and its people, like the way Pakistan/Saudi Arabia wants it. Like a recent research by London School of Economic shows how much ISI directly support terrorist group, Taliban and other terrorist network so we shouldn’t be surprise of the Taliban era and the worst could come IF the international community would not have been operates in Afghanistan.

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