Photo: US Embassy in Kabul

Sometimes, you reach for the classics to make sense of things.

We were putting together a special issue of the journal Conflict, Security and Development that would examine the role of elections in Afghanistan as a pathway to stability (or instability), peace (or more violence), and democratization (or its reverses). The contributors were academics based in Afghanistan, the US, Europe and Australia, - all of whom had lived, worked or studied developments in the country for many years.

We started in 2015, in an atmosphere of despair tinged with cautious hope. The 2014 presidential elections had been marred by “industrial scale fraud”, as one of our authors put it. The results were contested and recounts made but the figures were still so disputed that no final vote was made public. The stand-off was temporarily solved when the US Secretary of State flew in to bang heads together in an attempt to prevent the apparent losers from taking up arms.           

We laboured into late 2016, when the “national unity government” mediated by John Kerry, which included both the apparent winner and the apparent losers in a coalition, was still trying to find its feet and a functioning form. The structural reforms that both sides had committed to as part of the coalition deal (election processes and constitutional amendment) were not in sight. The deadline of September 2016 had passed and nothing had happened.

The malaise and demise of liberal democracy as a political system had become a mantra in academia and the media in many countries.

As the year of 2017 opened we had the paper version of the special issue in hand.  By then the malaise and demise of liberal democracy as a political system in general had become a mantra in academic publications and the media in many countries. The evident limitations of popular elections, in particular, were certainly not confined to countries struggling with violence, poverty and social divisions of the kind that long have plagued Afghanistan.

We could now have added more footnotes about the perverse or unintended effects of elections in Afghanistan. One note would probably mention the latest scandal involving Abdul Rashid Dostum. The ethnic Uzbek “warlord” serves as First Vice President under President Ashraf Ghani despite the contrasting profiles of the two (Ghani, a Western- educated technocrat had called Dostum a “known killer”  before putting him on his election ticket in 2014). After the election, Dostum appears to have reverted to form. He was in early 2017 investigated by the Attorney General for having kidnapped, detained and personally tortured a local rival in his compound in the northern province of Jowzan. In protest against the investigation, the First Vice President absented himself from all government activities in Kabul. The incident further strained the delicate ethnic and political balance of the “national unity government”.

The year also opened on a bad note for the Parliament. In early January, Taliban operatives launched a double suicide attack on the main road outside the assembly that killed or wounded around 125 persons. The attack was timed to hit the flow of government employees returning home from work at 4 pm.

So how did we make sense of this, and where do the classics come in? We - in this case Jonathan Goodhand at SOAS (London), Srinjoy Bose at the Australian National University (Canberra) and myself - reached for Charles Tilly and his famed metaphor of democracy as an oil field, a garden or a lake.  

Is democracy – and democratization – similar to an oil field, Tilly asked, which cannot be made but only develops in very particular, and under given, structural conditions? Or is it like a garden that with proper knowledge of key ingredients and methods can be cultivated in all places, although different plants will thrive? Tilly, as we know, rejected both the determinist and the exclusively agency interpretation to settle for something in between – a lake. A lake can be shaped, but it requires certain structural preconditions, and lakes can be flooded or dry out.

Institutional weaknesses point in direction of the lake as a guiding metaphor for the prospects of democratization.

The huge democracy promotion efforts in Afghanistan after 2001 were premised on the garden metaphor. UN and Western donor consultants arrived as so many horticulturalists and set to work. Yet sceptics warned that Afghanistan was “a most difficult case”, and some talked in Tillyesque language of the oil field.

Structural constraints were indeed obvious. Formal institutions were those of a centralized state, but the reality was decentralized power, a fractured political elite, contested legitimacies, deep ethnic divisions and diffusion of the means of violence, not only between the government and the declared insurgents, but also among ostensible supporters of the post-2001 order. Huge inflows of development and military aid generated a bloated war economy, further fueled by illicit commodities. The state depended upon foreign military and financial support for its survival. In this situation, elections soon became conflict generating rather than stabilizing. 

Huge inflows of development and military aid to Afghanistan generated a bloated war economy, further fueled by illicit commodities.

Some political institutions introduced after 2001 seemed a particularly poor fit for liberal democratic development. A presidential system with a winner-takes-all design, a weak Parliament that could harass but not substantially balance the executive, and a formal ban on political parties to contest elections, all tended to produce perverse, unintended and generally conflict-generating consequences of the elections.

Yet institutional weaknesses also point in direction of the lake as a guiding metaphor for the prospects of democratization. For example, electoral and constitutional systems that are more accommodating of diversity might help. So might a peace settlement that reduces the armed conflict and all its consequences for the political economy that has arisen from decades of protracted and renewed wars. A new political culture is evident among the generation of Afghans who have come of voting age after 2001.

Elections in a “most difficult” situation of the Afghan kind bring risks of flooding.

As editors of the special issue we settled for the lake, although warning that elections in a “most difficult” situation of the Afghan kind bring risks of flooding. Other authors in our special issue do not necessarily agree. You can read them all here: “Elections and the state: Critical perspectives on democracy promotion in Afghanistan”. Conflict, Security and Development, vol 16, no 6, 2016.

By Astri Suhrke, senior researcher at CMI