Originally posted December 2009

In the post-2001 era, many assumptions have been made about the benefits of democracy in Afghanistan.[1] International assistance has focused on the re-establishment of representative democratic institutions, such as a presidential system, bicameral parliament, and provincial councils. However, little attention has been paid to Afghan perceptions of democracy. Indeed, far from unquestionable, the benefits of democracy are not universally acknowledged among Afghans.

First, the term itself is contentious, carrying associations of both Western liberal values and the secularism of the Soviet regime under the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the 1980s.

Second, many Afghans are disappointed that the outcomes of democracy — the high expectations of the social and economic development that democracy would bring, along with increased security — have not been met.

Third, the under-performance of elected representatives in democratic institutions has served to consolidate the gap between people and government, and has not proved to be a means through which the interests of the majority of citizens can be addressed.

In spite of these negative perceptions, however, AREU research suggests that there is still widespread support for the process of selecting government through democratic means, provided that these take place within a secure environment and exist within an “Islamic framework.”

The meaning of the word “democracy” in Afghanistan is a key point for consideration. Without translation into Dari or Pashto, Afghans use the English word, which often carries negative connotations of Western liberal values and the militant secularism proposed under PDPA rule in the 1980s. When asked to define democracy, the majority of respondents in AREU’s study talked about “unlimited freedom,” whereby social restrictions over people’s behavior were not enforced either by the state or any other ruling (or religious) body. While some aspects of this freedom, such as the freedom to vote in elections, for example, were widely seen as a positive step forward, there exist serious concerns about the potential rise of immorality in a democratic society. A number of urban respondents expressed the belief that without strict social controls in place, youth or “uneducated” people would “mis-use” democracy, or use the word to justify morally unacceptable behavior. In light of this, an overwhelming number of respondents made a stark distinction between Western and Islamic democracy, whereby the former represented the unlimited and immoral freedoms associated with Western society, and the latter encapsulated desirable democratic freedoms acceptable within the “framework of Islam.”

Democracy is also widely associated with the promises that were made — but as yet not delivered — by the government and international community during the Bonn Process. There is widespread disillusionment with the benefits that democracy can bring, due to an expected improvement in rule of law and economic development which has not occurred. Many respondents made the comparison between the economies of established democratic states and that of Afghanistan — demonstrating the scale and weight of expectations in what “democracy” should have provided. Interestingly, there is also a clear tendency among respondents to link democracy with the notion of state-provided services and market restrictions, such as state-controlled commodity prices. This indicates both an association of democracy with the socialist PDPA policies of the 1980s, and also a connection made between democracy and social justice — envisioning a society in which every citizen is entitled to the same social and economic benefits. Respondents clearly indicated that the current situation was far from this “democratic” ideal, and thus could not be labeled “democracy.”

In a similar manner, it is clear that democracy is considered by most Afghans interviewed to be untenable without a secure environment in which it can develop. At the time of data collection (February-July 2009), the potential for unrepresentative elections due to limited polling in insecure areas was of great concern. However, key aspects of democratic society, such as the encouragement of multi-party competition, political opposition, and freedom of expression, were seen as potential contributors to insecurity rather than means to promote peace and stability. This is unsurprising given Afghanistan’s recent political history and tendency towards a winner-take-all politics, but it is nonetheless a key factor contributing to public skepticism of “democracy” in the current climate.

Finally, there is considerable disillusionment with the democratic institutions that have been (re-)installed since 2004-05. Democratic representation in Parliament and provincial councils is seen as ineffective, due to perceived fraud in elections, the under-performance of elected representatives, and the overarching powers of the executive which are seen to intervene in parliamentary processes. Moreover, for many there is a fundamental gap between the people and government. This is largely due to the fact that elected representatives for both Parliament and the Provincial Councils are elected by province, and yet only those constituents closely familiar with individual Members of Parliament or Provincial Council members (i.e., those from the same district) consider themselves truly represented or representable.

This essay has briefly discussed three key reasons for the decline of popular support for the democratization process as it currently exists: democracy as a problematic word with negative connotations; unmet social and economic expectations; and the mal-function of democratic institutions. However, as indicated initially, the idea of government elected by popular vote is still widely welcomed. Respondents in this study discussed the benefits of an “Islamic democracy” or “democracy within the framework of Islam,” in which a democratic system of selecting government would be combined with Islamic values. These terms are defined in different ways by different people, but they clearly demonstrate the desire of many Afghans to be part of the global movement towards public participation in government.

This may seem incredible after the 2009 elections, infamous for low voter turnout and allegation of fraud. But people’s desire to take part in choosing their government cannot be measured by turnout for an election in which the outcomes were widely considered pre-determined, and in which for many, voting was a life-threatening experience. For many Afghans, these elections did not represent a “test” of democracy or democratic principles at all. A common viewpoint found in this study was that the development of democratic systems of government takes time, and that this process cannot be implemented quickly. Members of the international community and donor governments would do well to remember this in the current environment, in which there is a tendency to portray the elections in 2009 as the only way to measure democratic governance in the country. Democracy and democratization in Afghanistan will be lengthy and fragile but valuable processes, which urgently need to be redefined from Afghan perspectives.


[1]. This essay is based on findings from an AREU study on Afghan perspectives of democracy and democratization. See Anna Larson, “Toward an Afghan Democracy? Exploring Perceptions of Democratisation in Afghanistan.” Kabul: AREU, 2009. The study will be extended to cover a greater area of Afghanistan in 2010.