by Stacia Koster
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, young democracies are numerous and on the rise. Unlike countries like Egypt and Tunisia however, where the demand for democracy is entirely home-grown, Afghanistan’s democratic government was brought to fruition largely as part of an American agenda. The fact that foreigners constructed the current Afghan democracy complicates Afghan perceptions of their democratic institutions, raising the question of whether the current democratic institutions within Afghanistan can ever be seen as legitimate by the Afghan people.
In a country where no official census has been taken since the 1970s (and even then the results were marked by widespread inaccuracy), it is difficult to ascertain who exactly constitute the “Afghan people” as a demographic population, let alone to determine their general perceptions of the current democratic institutions within Afghanistan. “There are major differences between the opinions of people in Kabul and those in rural areas,” says Dr. Amin Tarzi, the current head of Middle Eastern Studies at the Marine Corps University in Virginia. “Urban areas are overwhelmingly represented in surveys, and what you end up with is mostly guesstimates.”
Despite the difficulty of surveying a balanced sample of Afghan society,one thing all Afghans seem to share is a history of dramatic regime shifts and foreign occupations. From republicanism in the 1970s, to Soviet-inspired communism in the late 1970s and 80s, to Islamism and Talibanism in the 1990s, Afghanistan played host to a number of different foreign and domestic regimes even before the beginning of the United States’ occupation in the wake of September 11th. In Tarzi’s view, “each new ‘ism’ created a worse situation than the one before.” In light of this, it is unsurprising that during the first few years of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, many Afghans were wary of the motives of the United States, who some viewed as being inadvertently responsible for enabling the Taliban during the war with the Soviets in the 1970s. Perhaps their fears were not entirely baseless.
Thus far, Afghanistan has been given a “very bad taste of democracy,” in the words of Tarzi, who claims recent elections and other early exercises in democracy have highlighted many of the problems in Afghanistan’s demo ratic institutions. The most recent of these experiments in democracy was the 2010 elections of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament. These elections sent mixed signals about the state of Afghanistan’s current democratic institutions. Despite widespread insecurity and Taliban threats, Democracy International, an organisation that works to promote free and legitimate elections, estimates that 5.6 million turned out to dip their fingers in ink on Election Day. This figure was 1.3 million higher than expected, based on Democracy International’s estimates. Clearly, many Afghans still saw voting as an avenue to exert their rights as citizens and prop up their democratic institutions. However, the events following the election have highly undermined the democratic institutions in Afghanistan.
In the days immediately after the election, the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the group that facilitates Afghan elections, released the preliminary results of the September 18th vote, congratulating themselves and the Afghan population on a job well done. Two months later, after accounting for fraud and “recalculating” the results, the IEC announced that twenty-four candidates who had originally been pronounced winners had actually lost. Candidates were understand ably aggravated and challenged the legitimacy of the IEC and the September 18th elections. In response to this, President Karzai issued an executive order to create a special court to examine the election, openly defying the IEC (an institution legitimized by the Afghan constitution) and overstepping his prescribed duties as executive. Afghans were concerned not only by the inefficient and/or corrupt nature of the IEC but also by the relative ease with which Karzai expanded his power as executive.
Despite the fact that many facets of life have improved in Afghani stan in the last few years, including the financial stability of households, women’s rights and access to education, perceptions of corruption within the government are still disconcertingly high. Afghanistan is ranked second-last – 176th out of 178 countries – on Transparency International’s corruption index. According to Democracy International, voter turnout, which was almost 80% in Afghanistan’s first democratic election in 2004, has gone down significantly with each new election, and was between 40 and 50% during the last election. The sharp decrease in voters could be one indication of a prevailing feeling of insecurity in some regions of Afghanistan and a gradual decline in interest in others.
The latest results from the Asia Foundation, which conducts surveys of the Afghan population every year, indicated that the number of Afghans who are somewhat or very dissatisfied with democratic institutions in Afghanistan has risen by 8% in the past five years while the number who are somewhat or very satisfied with democracy has fallen from 76 to 69%. The Asia Foundation findings suggest that this fall in confidence could be related to the 2010 parliamentary elections; 49% of Afghans felt that the elections were free and fair while almost an equal number, 46% of Afghans, felt that they were not. Another small-scale survey distributed for an academic report in the spring of 2010 to thirty young Afghans in Kabul provides further insight into the way that Afghans see both their current government and the role of international actors in propagating that government.
The survey asked respondents open-ended questions about their everyday lives in Afghanistan, their perceptions of the foreign presence within Afghanistan and their opinions on Afghan progress over the past decade. Those surveyed were permitted to remain anonymous for their safety, but many chose to identify themselves based on age, occupation, gender and first name.
Their comments indicated that while some positive perceptions of democratic institutions still persist, there is no shortage of pessimism with regards to the state of democracy in Afghanistan. Despite his acknowledgment that there have been some improvements in education, civil rights and economic prospects, survey respondent Sayed, a 31-year-old UN employee, insists that ultimately, “nothing significant has changed in the last 31 years in Afghanistan. The biggest change I have always wished/prayed for has yet to come.”
Afghan perceptions of the role of the international community in Afghanistan have been similarly mixed. Though some of the survey respondents did note positive changes in Afghan society over the past ten years, there was also a note of bitterness in many
of their responses. Sayed writes that despite seeing an incremental improvement in Afghanistan he still has “big doubts regarding the faithfulness of the West,” while Mirwas, a 30 year-old technical assistant to the Ministry of Education laments that “American neocolonization is a curse for peace and stability.”
Western politicians adopt a somewhat more nuanced view. Pamela Wallin, a Canadian Senatorand Chair of the Senate’s National Security and Defense Committee believes that while the international community has played and continues to play an important role in making Afghanistan more secure, the job of constructing a strongdemocracy within Afghanistan is up to Afghans. “The goal right now is preparing Afghans to provide their own security for their citizens,” says Senator Wallin. She notes that while Canada continues to create schools to educate the Afghan population, it is ultimately up to Afghanistan to create a sustainable democracy.
Only then will Afghans truly trust the legitimacy of their democratic institutions. The importance of Afghan self-sufficiency is echoed in the words of a 28 year-old finance officer who states emphatically that, “Afghans need to determine their destiny for themselves. Leave Afghanistan for Afghans!” Ultimately, when evaluating democracy in Afghanistan it is important to keep things in perspective. “We must try not to impose our standards,” Wallin urges, emphasising that though Afghan democracy may not take a Western form, it is much more important that it be based in Afghan contexts and traditions.
In terms of prospects for Afghan democracy, Wallin is optimistic: “Ultimately, Afghans have the memory, the assistance and the will.” Hamid, a 23-year-old student adopts a similar view: “All Afghanistan needs is system. Once we acquire a system we will not need anybody’s help nor will we need to copy any other country’s government.” It remains to be seen whether or not the current democratic government in Afghanistan will evolve into the system to which Hamid refers.This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of The Paris Globalist.