AREU Synthesis Paper Series
6. Democracy as the Ultimate Equaliser
Modern, liberal democracy is widely considered an equalising force: where universal suffrage is present, all citizens’ votes count for the same, and anyone may stand for election in spite of their status, wealth or family heritage. However, study respondents raised a number of concerns with applying this ideal in the Afghan context. The first is that in a largely illiterate society, this equalising force might not necessarily result in a “capable” government, since—according to elite perspectives—people in rural areas might not know who to vote for. The second, contradictorily, is that while equality would be a positive development, it is not achievable as long as those with money and power in government determine the rules of the game. The third concern relates to narratives of inclusion and exclusion. Many respondents offered competing opinions on the merits of equal versus proportional representation, while some described an ideal state of perakh bansat (complete representation or inclusion), in which all groups are represented, and yet no one group is strong enough to exert pressure on another.
6.1 Problems with equality in candidacy and voting
A number of urban respondents in the study’s first phase expressed a degree of concern about the equalising nature of democracy in a context of widespread illiteracy. According to the principles of universal suffrage, the votes of those who cannot read or write count just as much as the votes of the educated. However, this opens up a strong possibility that outcomes of elections could be affected by local powerholders using coercion or force to gain the votes of illiterate communities. This concern presented a considerable dilemma for some respondents, especially in Kabul, who saw the manipulation of illiterate voters as a way for commanders and strongmen to gain seats in parliament. However, this elitist perspective is not substantiated in the data. Instead, it appears that while illiterate communities do often vote in
groups (as mentioned above), group voting can be rational, organised and less open to influence by local commanders than urban elites might think. Furthermore, the perception that bribery, vote- buying and intimidation only occur in rural areas among illiterate communities is simply false: AREU research on the elections in 2009 and 2010 found a number of instances of these taking place in urban areas as well.88
The concept of universal suffrage also points to another issue: that of women’s participation. Although communities in extremely conservative areas were not included as part of this study, largely due to inaccessibility, the research gathered a variety of perspectives which included many conservative viewpoints on the role of women. However, even among these respondents the prospect of either women voting or women standing as candidates was not a matter of particular concern. In fact, there was a considerable amount of support for female candidates among male respondents in both rural and urban Nangarhar. And while some women in Ghazni talked about not being allowed to vote due to their husbands’ emphasis on “security concerns,” a surprising number also related having participated in elections. These trends are not insignificant given previous exclusion of women from the public sphere.
Another concern of urban respondents regarding the equality of democratic politics centred around parliamentarians’ eligibility for their positions. Many felt that candidates from rural communities would be unlikely to have the education necessary for their official posts, and that there should be some kind of minimum educational requirement in place to ensure that parliament was comprised of capable MPs:89
See for example Larson, “The Wolesi Jirga in Flux,” 17-19.
there are in fact now educational requirements for PC and district council candidates, but not, strangely, for Wolesi Jirga or Presidential candidates. See Afghanistan Electoral Law (Official Gazette no. 1012),
2010 (SY 1389).