Democracy in Afghanistan? Not so fast…

Last week, the world was watching as Afghanistan held its much-anticipated Presidential and provincial elections. This is only the third time that elections have been held in this country since the invasion of NATO and US troops and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. American-backed incumbent Hamid Karzai was one of 30 candidates for the Presidency, challenged primarily by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and reformer Ramazan Bashardost.

As the votes are being tallied and accusations of fraud are already widespread, we thought it would be helpful to return to the fall 2008 edition of the World Savvy Monitor on Democracy around the World to take a look at what these elections can tell us about democracy in Afghanistan.

First and foremost, Afghanistan is a great case study of how democracy is about more than voting. A recent Foreign Policy blog post highlights the argument that Afghanistan’s Election does not make it a democracy. Indeed, despite holding elections at all levels over the past 6 years, under both international supervision and national control, Afghanistan is NOT considered a true democracy by any of the independent organizations analyzing governments around the world.

  • The Economist Intelligence Unit classifies Afghanistan as an authoritarian country (not even a flawed democracy), giving it failing grades on most measures including electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation, and political culture.
  • Over the past year, Freedom House has downgraded Afghanistan’s status from “partly free” to “not free,” largely due to insecurity, corruption, inefficiency of government institutions, and human rights abuses.

See the Democracy edition of the World Savvy Monitor for a detailed description of electoral versus true democracies, especially the section entitled “What is Democracy?” Running the Afghanistan example through a checklist of the components of democracy is a great exercise, revealing how far the country still has to go toward joining the world community of liberal democracies, no matter how current elections play out. Even if voting is determined to be “fully free and fair” (which, by most accounts it was not, largely due to the intimidation of voters and alleged fraud), this will still not be sufficient to earn Afghanistan the moniker of democracy.

Afghanistan’s transition-in-process is also a good case study of the debate over sequencing in democracy-building.

  • It bears remembering that Afghanistan has no real history of democracy; or even of a credible central government of any kind. It needs rule of law. It needs institutions, transparent processes, trained leaders. It needs economic development that will bring civilians in as stakeholders in its future as a nation-state.
  • Consolidating and deepening its nascent democracy promises to be difficult under any circumstances; achieving this during war-time is a extraordinary task.
  • Should this institution-building have taken place before elections were introduced? The years 2001-2003 saw the country ruled by a Transitional Administration chosen by a special council. Should this interlude have been extended in order to prepare fertile ground for democracy? Could the international community have asked the Afghan people to wait any longer for elections?

The political situation in Afghanistan is of immense concern to the United States, and is also a good lesson in the complexity of geopolitics, especially around Democracy Promotion.

  • On one hand, the US (as a democracy-promoting country) would like to see Afghanistan’s democracy deepen and mature. But this process is often messy – in the short term, it could be marked by protests and upheaval over election results. This messiness is often formative and even necessary, a step along the path to true civilian participation in government.
  • BUT, the US already faces a “deteriorating” military and security situation in Afghanistan, where 62,000 US troops are committed and more on the way. Thus, on the other hand, the US has an interest in getting this election over with so that it can focus on defeating the Taliban. American soldiers’ lives literally depend on it. Internal political divisions in Afghanistan mean that the array of players lined up against the Taliban are fragmented, and this is no good for the war effort.

Official results from this most recent election will not be released until September and are likely to be highly contended, with numerous complaints of fraud, voter intimidation, and vote rigging already filed. As the world watches on, what do you think this recent election can tell us about the potential for democracy in Afghanistan?

-By Cate Biggs, Editor, World Savvy Monitor

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