What Afghanistan can learn from American democracy
The swearing-in of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the US, along with Kamala Harris as the first black person, first woman and first South Asian-American to be vice president, was another historic day for America’s democracy. People in Afghanistan watched these developments with interest and as an inspiration for their own democratic evolution, as their country stands at a crossroads amid the ongoing peace negotiations. Drawing parallels between America and Afghanistan may seem odd for many, but it does make sense in the context of one of the world’s youngest democracies trying to learn from one of the oldest.
The aftermath of the recent US election can tell us a lot about managing democracies, even in the most developed societies. There is no question about former President Donald Trump’s popularity with sections of the American public. It is also true that, before his election in 2016, he was a complete outsider and had never been part of the Washington-based establishment. But he managed to reach out to millions across America by trying to offer a new political thought process that was largely US-centric, with “America First” as its slogan. But it is also evident that, when leaders intend to take advantage of the public’s emotions, even the oldest, most established and institutionalized democracies can face disorder.
What is notable is the resilience of US democracy, even during a pandemic that has hit the country harder than anywhere else in the world. The election was held on time and the new president was inaugurated as planned after a peaceful transfer of power. This is the strength of America’s democratic institutions, which the whole world could witness despite the ugly events that occurred just two weeks before Biden’s inauguration.
It is from this that the fragile democracy of Afghanistan can learn from one of the world’s most institutionalized examples. Afghanistan’s experience with democracy during the past two decades has been full of ups and downs. The country had a democratically elected president for the first time in 2004 after more than 20 years of war and a conflict that still continues. Hamid Karzai remained in power for more than a decade and peacefully transferred power to President Ashraf Ghani in 2014 — a great moment for Afghans to celebrate.
Trump did not concede defeat to Biden. Yet, in less than 24 hours, everyone both within the US and around the world knew that Biden was the incoming president. This is in sharp contrast to Afghanistan, where election results take not days, not even weeks, but months to finalize. Also, every time there is an election in Afghanistan, whether for parliament or president, it is charged with accusations of it being rigged, lacking transparency, and containing irregularities. The past three presidential elections all required interventions from the US to get the top two contenders to agree on the results. This shows that Afghan institutions have achieved neither the capacity nor the independence required to make decisions on their own, without mediation from outside.
The democratic institutions in Afghanistan remain politicized, with a tendency to favor the sitting government. In the case of the US, Trump made several unsuccessful attempts, mainly through the courts, to overturn the election result, but he did not succeed because the judiciary was completely free from all kinds of political influence. Ultimately, the institutions prevailed and democracy and the free will of the people were victorious.
The 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan resulted in deadlock and was well on its way to carrying the country to the verge of political catastrophe. The deadlock was only broken when then-US Secretary of State John Kerry intervened and helped broker a deal between President Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, leading to the formation of a national unity government. The idea of a national unity government was not a formula for joint governance, but a recipe to salvage the country from imminent political disaster. An almost identical situation came about in 2019 and this was again resolved with US help, when then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used his influence. As a result, Abdullah accepted the position of chairman of the National Peace and Reconciliation Council.
Afghan institutions have achieved neither the capacity nor the independence required to make decisions on their own.
With peace talks now in progress in Doha, Afghan democracy is facing yet another challenge, with the government and the Taliban presenting their own definitions of democracy for Afghanistan. It is true that the country’s democratic experience during the past two decades has been far from perfect. It does, however, make for a good start. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban must prioritize peace and listen to the aspirations of an absolute majority of the population. Democracy that does not serve the purpose of social justice, political and economic stability, and prosperity will be viewed as of little meaning. The ultimate goal of democracy must be a fair, just and peaceful society founded on the principle of the free will of people. This is a loud and clear message from the people of Afghanistan to both the Taliban and the Afghan government. At the end of the day, both peace and democracy must prevail, as one without the other would be meaningless for Afghans.
- Ajmal Shams is Vice-President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party and is based in Kabul. He is a former Deputy Minister in the Afghan National Unity Government. Twitter: @ajmshams