The Debate

Is Democracy Dying in Afghanistan?

The recent presidential election, coupled with a long list of government failures, is a serious alarm heralding the death of democracy in Afghanistan.

By Jumakhan Rahyab for
Is Democracy Dying in Afghanistan?
Credit: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan

The latest presidential election in Afghanistan on September 28, witnessed only 26 percent turnout, the lowest since 2001. Aside from serious questions about whether such a dismal turnout can grant enough legitimacy to the forthcoming president elect, it reminds Afghans of a crucial fact that they direly need to rethink the democratization process in the country. 

The low turnout was not a fluke. It needs to be acknowledged that the reasons underpinning such a low turnout can be found in grievances that have built up over a long period of time, at least since the contentious 2014 presidential election. By and large, the performance of National Unity Government (NUG) in the past five years has yielded endemic corruption, adverse poverty, pervasive insecurity, undermined rule of law and, most importantly, undemocratic practices, all of which in turn have caused distrust in the government and democratic institutions. 

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, offers a rich and critical insight on how democracies have been driven to death by elected governments since the end of the Cold War, and not by generals and soldiers. The book argues that “today’s democratic backsliding begins at the ballot boxes” rather than by the tanks on the streets. In the same light, one can safely argue that the nascent Afghan democracy has been weakened to the verge of death by an elected government, in this case the NUG. The reason is clear: There have been rises in the poverty rate, the unemployment rate, insecurity, and migration during the rule of the NUG. In light of those struggles democracy and freedoms have become only a second priority for the populace. Rafael Caldera, at the time ex-president of Venezuela, in 1992 embraced Chaves and the rebels’ cause and declared “it is difficult to ask the people to sacrifice themselves for freedom and democracy when they think that freedom and democracy are incapable of giving them food to eat, of preventing the astronomical rise in the cost of substance, or of placing a definitive end to the terrible scourge of corruption that, in the eyes of the entire world, is eating away at the intuitions of [the country] with each passing day.” 

Afghanistan is in the throes of a similar circumstance as the Taliban gain recognition and appear stringer both on paper and on the ground. Afghan democracy is at serious risk if necessary measures are not taken to save it.

The Taliban and other fundamentalist groups threaten Afghanistan’s fragile democracy and the republican system of government on the one hand; on the other, a corrupt and dysfunctional government weakens the democratic institutions and undermines rule of law. The behavior of the leadership of the Afghan government since 2014 has largely pushed democracy to the brink as they made little efforts to strengthen democracy. Rather, the government’s behavior and mode of governance has debilitated democratic institutions and has harmed the required conducive environment for a democracy to take hold on the other. What the political leaders in Afghanistan have displayed since 2014 is, quite tellingly, is indicative of the four indicators suggested in the aforementioned book that turns a democracy to an authoritarian rule: 1) rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game; 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; 3) toleration or encouragement of violence, and 4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. The NUG has a track record in all four indicators. 

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There is ample evidence of the four indicators in Afghan government leadership traits. One major example is how the NUG dealt with social movements — a major tenet in a modern democracy. At least since the assumption of power by the NUG in 2015, powerful social movements have either been allegedly suppressed by the government or the government has failed to provide security. In 2016, the Enlightenment Movement organized the country’s largest demonstrations advocating for the re-routing of a power project, a cause which was supported by funding donors and a few current presidential candidates. Presidential candidate Rahmatullah Nabil, who has served as the head of National Directorate of Security (NDS), for example, recently said that if he wins the election, he will re-route the project as soon as he assumes power. Aside from revealing a malignant intention in the change of route under the NUG, this promise proves a lack of integrity in distributing resources that are taken hostage by politicians to be offered in their presidential campaigns as privileges. 

The NUG has also weakened the Afghan democracy by failing to restore trust in the electoral institutions in the aftermath of a fraudulent election in 2014. After a three and a half year delay in the parliamentary elections that were finally held in 2018, and was marred by fraud, people are suspicious if they have a say in electing the president and developing government’s policies as accommodated in democracies. 

Although the presidential election in 2004 was far better off than three next presidential elections in terms of turnout, the constitution drafted and ratified in 2001 left little room for a representative and all-inclusive democracy to take root in the country. The current Afghan constitution gives the president more power than a king, as Nazif Shahrani put it in a 2018 article, and is “at the heart of a major crisis” in Afghanistan.

Moreover, security and the economy have also deteriorated steadily. Among other reasons for this is a dysfunctional government, its controversial easy-going policy toward insurgent groups, and an endemic corruption. According to recent reports, on an average 70 people are killed across Afghanistan every day, and more than 54 percent of Afghan people live under the poverty line.

All these developments underlie the low election day turnout. People have little trust in electoral institutions and in the political elite which has left the country at risk of being ruled by a failing and dysfunctional government facing an impending return of the Taliban and their fanatic regime.

The Way Forward

With all the difficulties Afghan people are grappling with, and with all challenges the country is facing, there is no alternative to a democracy in Afghanistan. While remembering that it is not easy to rescue democracy and put it back on the right track, we ought also to remember that it is possible and achievable. For that, an all-out engagement effort is needed on different fronts. At this juncture, the Independent Election Commission and Independent Complaints Commission can play a significant role to put an end to skepticism about the democratic process for once and for good. We need civil society to come out and stand by and for the people. They should not wait for short and project-based activities but begin to mobilize the masses and foster indigenous movements. The media should put an end to its self-censorship and strengthen its oversight of the government. The international community must assure the Afghan people that there is no alternative to a democracy.

Jumakhan Rahyab is a Fulbright Graduate Fellow at University of Massachusetts Boston, McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies where he is pursuing a master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies. Rahyab holds a BA in political science from Kabul University. He has been involved in civil society and human rights activism since 2013 when he co-founded Youth Development Association (YDA), a local CSO focused on youth and women empowerment through advocacy, training, and awareness raising. He has also co-translated the book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Theses views are expressly the author’s and not associated with Fulbright or any other institution.