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Deconstructing “Democracy” in Afghanistan

1. Introduction

1.1 Introduction to the study and rationale

Common understandings of the term “democracy” within current political and development thought often assign it an inherently positive quality. The word often symbolises the freedom of peoples to choose leadership for themselves, in a context where each person’s vote is of equal value, and in which there is always the possibility of change at the highest levels. “Democracy” also frequently encapsulates fundamental principles of human rights, justice, economic development and security. The belief in these values has prompted popular uprisings worldwide, along with the widespread propagation of top-down democratisation initiatives from across the political spectrum.

On the face of it, it may therefore seem surprising that—according to AREU research—many Afghans do not share this perspective or definition. However, the term has a chequered history in Afghanistan. For many, it is seen as an imported concept laden with contemporary associations of Western liberal values and secularism; for others it also carries earlier associations with the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the 1980s. Rather than bringing about peace and rule of law in the ten years since the overthrow of the Taliban, the new structures of governance that have been installed in the name of “democracy” have been used by powerholders in and outside the government in what might be considered highly “undemocratic” ways. These structures have come to be associated with increasing insecurity, a predatory government unable or unwilling to deliver services to its citizens, and unlimited freedom promoting a free-for-all, corrupt and immoral social order.

This study began in January 2009 as a means of exploring Afghan perceptions of democracy and democratisation. Concerned by the many overarching assumptions made by international

actors regarding the merits of various activities included under the label of “democracy promotion” in Afghanistan, it set out to clarify and document views of “democracy” expressed by Afghans across the country. This had not been done in a systematic manner at that point, and represented a significant gap in the literature.

In its treatment of “democracy,” this paper attempts to focus on perceptions—both those of Afghans and of international actors in the country— of the word and its meaning. In doing so, it seeks not only to critically assess different understandings of the word “democracy” in the Afghan context but also to question conventional Western assertions (as described above) of what it is or should be. This is primarily due to the way findings from this research have demonstrated a considerable spectrum of different definitions and associations, highlighting the diversity of meaning the word can contain. It is, however, difficult if not impossible to discuss “democracy” at length without considering some of the more prevalent interpretations of the term in the literature, as will be discussed below. In their most basic form, these interpretations view democracy as a political system in which citizens within a given state, institution or entity have the right to determine how they are governed and who should have the authority to make decisions. As will be discussed later, the paper upholds the perspective put forward by political scientist Charles Tilly in his description of democratisation as a continuum along which states can become more or less democratic. In this understanding, levels of “democraticness” are always prone to change and do not achieve an end-point of “true democracy” that can be defined by any one current

or past example.1

The findings from this research clearly show that democracy as both a word and concept as applied to post-2001 governance in Afghanistan


Charles Tilly,







2007), 13-14.


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