The South Asia Channel

Afghan perspectives on "democracy"

The current session of Afghanistan's lower parliament [Wolesi Jirga] has not gotten off to the most auspicious of starts. After a fraud-ravaged election and last month's showdown with President Hamid Karzai, the country's newly-seated parliament has already ground to a halt in its wrangling over who to elect as speaker. As the system lurches from one crisis to another, many observers have raised concerns that Afghanistan's democratic system is hemorrhaging legitimacy at an unsustainable rate. But how do Afghans describe what a "legitimate democracy" looks like to them?

Since 2008, our research team at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) has followed Afghans' attitudes towards democracy as part of a broader qualitative study of representative governance in the country. The project has involved hundreds of individual and group interviews with men and women of different ethnicities and social backgrounds across seven provinces (Parwan, Kabul, Balkh, Nimroz, Paktia, Nangarhar and Ghazni). Through using in-depth, open-ended interviews, we focused on capturing the competing and complex currents of Afghan public opinion on the issue-research which adds important depth to more qualitative approaches like the Asia Foundation's annual Survey of the Afghan People.

A central theme that emerged from the responses was that many Afghans have negative associations attached to the word "democracy" itself. In the view of many Afghans we spoke to, the idea of democracy extends far beyond elections and parliamentary politics to encompass an entire package of Western liberal values, where freedom is equated with an absence of rules, immorality, and secularism. As one interviewee put it: "some people think that democracy is unlimited freedom, or doing anything you want to do, or wearing any type of clothing." Or another: "for the youth in the cities, the word ‘democracy' just means having a good life and watching TV."

This is not to say that these Afghans have a problem with representative government-they'd just prefer to do it on their own terms. Even as people expressed deep concern over the encroachment of western-style "freedom" on Afghanistan's moral and social landscape, they expressed strong support for the kind of "freedom" that allows them to elect their rulers and hold them to account.  Many of our interviewees sought to reconcile this tension by arguing for a democracy placed within an "Islamic framework"-one that protects their strongly-held values and ideals from erosion. While the boundaries of this framework fell in different places for different people, it emerged repeatedly as a reference point for judging the successes or failures of Afghanistan's democratization process as a whole.

If the legitimacy of democratic ideals is a thorny issue in Afghanistan, so too is the legitimacy of democratic representatives. For much of Afghanistan's history, community-organized government with minimal interference from the political center has been the norm. This has led to highly localized understandings of what modern politicians should do and be. For many interviewees, they are expected to be straightforward service providers to their immediate communities, and the burden of producing jobs, clinics, schools and other public goods sits directly on their shoulders. This impression is reinforced by candidates themselves, who often make elaborate promises to individual villages in their efforts to garner votes. Such heightened expectations mean that when politicians inevitably fail to deliver, they are widely condemned as ineffective, self-centered or corrupt.

This localism also meant that many people struggled to identify with the MPs representing their province, failing to see how someone without deep connections to or familiarity with their particular village or district community could represent them in government. "We don't have any representatives in parliament," said one man in Balkh Province, which has 11 seats allocated to it but no representative from his district. These issues are often interpreted in ethnic terms, but in many cases they cut much further down, into the knotty world of local-level solidarity groups, lineage ties and patronage networks.

These issues suggest that any discussion of the "legitimacy" of Afghanistan's democratic process must be tied to a broader understanding of how Afghans see the system as a whole. In the responses of many of our interviewees, it often seemed as though two different visions of Afghan democracy were competing for space. In one, people saw the chance to take part in a process that would, over time, respond to their needs and expectations while protecting their culture and values from erosion. In the other, they saw yet another foreign system of ideology attempting to impose its own vision in their name-as one  student from Balkh put it, "a government of outsiders, by outsiders, for the Afghan people."

Afghans' sense of ownership in the current system is waning as corruption and weak governance alienate increasing numbers of voters from their supposed representatives. As this happens, the negative form of democracy that many Afghans fear and the system that they see are likely to become increasingly synonymous. Meanwhile, the longed-for "Afghan democracy" edges further away.

Anna Larson is a governance researcher at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU). Oliver Lough is a communications and advocacy editor at AREU.

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