In 2011, the words “democracy” and “Afghanistan” do not sit well together. For many Afghans, the country’s 10-year process of democratisation has proven bitterly disappointing in its failure to deliver justice, equity or services, while the term itself has become increasingly associated with the unwanted imposition of Western values. This is matched by a sense of fatigue and resignation among members of the donor community, who have promoted the rhetoric of democratisation and paid for expensive election cycles, yet have seemingly little to show to their increasingly war-weary and impatient publics.
Despite this, this paper argues that there is still space for the development of a democratic politics in Afghanistan. It claims that democratisation is a process, without an end-point—and a process that is constantly shifting between poles of “more” or “less democratic.” In this respect, democratisation in Afghanistan (as elsewhere) has the potential to move in either direction. It also asserts, however, that if the process of democratisation is to take lasting root in the country, it needs to be situated firmly within Afghan priorities, many of which may not necessarily overlap with the principles enshrined in liberal democracy. In reaching these conclusions, the paper brings together two years of research on Afghan perspectives of democracy and democratisation in rural and urban areas across six different provinces. While it makes no claim to represent all Afghan perspectives on the subject, it highlights three key themes in the data which have important implications for the future of the country’s democratisation process:
• Afghan ownership versus foreign imposition: People’s general hostility to the term “democracy” as a symbol of Western domination was matched by a widespread acceptance of elections and the institution of parliament as a way to make government more inclusive and accountable. In contrast to immoral, unfettered “freedom” that was seen to prevail in liberal democracies, many called for the implementation of democracy within an “Islamic framework.” However, the precise nature of what this might encompass was rarely defined and seems to some extent open to negotiation.
• Dynamics of security and stability: Democratic participation is currently a distant second priority to being able to go about everyday activities without fear of harassment or violence for respondents in less secure areas. Such immediate concerns were also set against a more widespread wariness of the threat political competition might pose to the longterm stability of the country. Political parties were seen as particularly dangerous in this respect, and many people favoured a “politics of consensus” as the most legitimate, peaceful form of decision-making.
• Issues of equality: The question of equal representation was the subject of conflicting and often contradictory opinions—people’s views on how constituents are represented and by whom varied widely, especially across the rural-urban divide. However, there was an almost universal desire for equality in terms of access to decision-making, service provision and resources. Consequently, many saw Afghanistan’s current version of “democracy” as little more than a way for the powerful to consolidate their positions.
Many of these priorities and principles would be difficult to implement even in a secure environment, and the paper does not present policy recommendations or answers to the questions they raise. However, by grounding its analysis in the perspectives of ordinary citizens, it hopes to expand the debate on democratisation beyond the priorities and assumptions of decision-makers in Kabul, and to focus on what Afghans themselves want and expect from their political system.