There’s a lot of talk just now about Afghanistan’s democratic transition (see here). Saturday’s elections brought 7 million people to the polls – no question, a signal of widely-desired change and a desire to have that change come through participatory, democratic processes. But the kind of desired change it embodies shouldn’t be equated with a groundswell for liberal democratic reform. Why? Because even if liberal reform was widely desired in Afghanistan (which it certainly isn’t), the most enthusiastic of voters is wary of assigning too much weight to these polls. A high turnout has meant success in itself – but few people are under any illusions that their lives are going to change dramatically as a result of the polls (see here).
Over the last decade, elections in Afghanistan have become very much a part of the local political environment in which they are taking place, and have been adapted in many places to fit existing methods of making decisions in the community (for more on this, see our book, Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan). Bloc voting occurs in many communities, where a suitable candidate is decided on ahead of time and everyone votes accordingly. Voting occurs along ethnic, tribal, family, wider-family, student union, and civil society group lines – and is not always ‘issues-based’. But while some recent reports have pointed this out to be a problem (see here), where the ‘Afghan way’ doesn’t fit with our own, western notions of what elections should look like (ie people making their own, independent choices about who to vote for), it could be argued that these practices actually increase the legitimacy of the voting process for many Afghans, who are able to counter the somewhat alien majority-rule idea with a more familiar, consensus-based approach. And this perspective conveniently overlooks the way that bloc voting along ethnic or social group lines is standard practice in our own countries. Of course, there is a need to ensure that people are still able to cast votes that differ from the community consensus – but as long as individual voting rights are protected at the same time as bloc voting occurs, what’s the issue? And does it matter that it occurs along ethnic lines in some cases? Why is this any less representative of people’s interests?
This example also serves as a reminder that the high turnout to Saturday’s polls shouldn’t be confused with a public embrace of western liberal principles. Sure, they were a sign that people supported the democratic practice of electing a leader, but elections and liberal democracy are not seen by all Afghans to go hand in hand. Indeed, many people we spoke to in a research project in 2010 (see here) were quite happy with the idea of elections as a means to transfer power, but associated democracy with western imperialism and the imposition of liberal values on a Muslim nation. Others talked about the need to contain democracy within an Islamic framework. There is still a lot to be debated among Afghans themselves as to what this means in practice, and the kind of government they see working best to combine democratic and Islamic practices. While there may be room for international actors to work with civil society and the new government toward improving fiscal accountability mechanisms, access to justice and protection for women’s rights, for example, these issues must be identified as priorities by Afghans themselves. Otherwise, they will simply pay lip service to a superficial set of values that citizens themselves are not prepared to defend.