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Deconstructing “Democracy” in Afghanistan

2. Democratisation Efforts in Afghanistan

Modern democratic institutions—and more specifically, bodies of elected representatives and the polls held to select them—were not established in Afghanistan for the first time post-2001. Indeed, there is a considerable history of attempts to “modernise” politics according to democratic principles: a parliament was established in the late 1920s under Amanullah Khan, sets of consecutive elections for parliamentary seats took place in the 1960s, and elections of a kind were held under the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in the 1980s.25 The successive parliaments of 1965-1969 and 1969-1971 functioned in a very similar manner to the way in which the current parliament operates, as the Constitution of Afghanistan formed during the post-Taliban Bonn Process was built around the 1964 Constitution of Zahir Shah’s “era of democracy.” As such, it is wholly incorrect to assume that the so-called Bonn Process took place against a blank slate, and many of the institutions that have emerged during the formation of post-Taliban Afghanistan are in fact continuations or developments of much earlier versions.

A new rhetoric of democratisation was promoted to underpin the state-building initiatives driven by international actors after the 2001 military invasion. These initiatives involved the establishment of a transitional and then interim government headed by Hamid Karzai, followed by the country’s first presidential elections in 2004. Coordinated by the Joint Elections Management Body (JEMB) and largely an internationally-run exercise, these elections were hailed as a great success at the time, with a turnout of almost 80 percent across the country.26 While the official declaration of a free and fair election was not

entirely consistent with the perceptions of many Afghans, who were first-hand witnesses to the fraud that occurred,27 the achievement was nevertheless impressive. Parliamentary and provincial council (PC) elections followed in 2005, once again with a relatively high turnout. The inauguration of parliament in November 2005 marked the conclusion of the four-year Bonn Process, which from the outset was specified to be “a first step toward the establishment of a broad-based, gender- sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government.”28

Since this time, the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament) has completed a first full term and a new parliament has recently been inaugurated. These events have been accompanied by a plethora of short-term, donor-funded programmes. Often implemented before or after an election, these have attempted to provide technical assistance to promoting various aspects of a “democratisation” agenda encouraging the strengthening of civil society, the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality, the consolidation of political parties and attempting to establish mechanisms of subnational governance. However, these have remained largely superficial engagements, and have been undermined in many ways by international actors’ preference for dealing with the executive over and above elected bodies.29 In one respect, their character emphasises how the international community’s stated commitment to promoting






27 Various interviews, comparative experiences of elections.

28 “Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions” (Bonn Agreement), http://unama.unmissions.org/Portals/UNAMA/ Documents/Bonn-agreement.pdf (accessed 21 April 2011).

25 For a full listing of elections in Afghanistan and the history of democratic institutions see Anna Larson, “Toward an Afghan

Democracy” (Kabul: AREU, 2009), 5-8.


Joint Electoral Management Body,




Assembly and Provincial Council Elections 2005,” http://www. jemb.org/pdf/JEMBS%20MGT%20Final%20Report%202005-12-12.pdf (accessed 17 June 2006).

29 Interestingly, having promoted a highly centralised system in Bonn, international perspectives appear to be shifting. For example, Charles L Barry and Samuel R Greene of the US Department of Defense- affiliated National Defense University seem to put forward the case for decentralisation as a way forward for international democratisation programmes. See Charles L. Barry and Samuel R Greene, “What Democracy for Afghanistan? An Analysis Utilizing Established Norms and five Non- Western Cases” (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, 2009), vi.


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