Weekly Insights and Analysis

The Road to Democracy in Afghanistan

January 28, 2009

By Russell J. Dalton

Afghanistan began its transition to democracy in the early 2000s with great expectations. A member of the Afghan parliament tells the following story about constituents in his district: As the first presidential election approached, a homeowner was having his roof repaired. A storm was approaching, as well as the election. Nevertheless, the roofers decided to stop working for a day – and lose a valuable day’s pay – in order to travel home to their village to vote. Even though the homeowner worried about his house if the rains came, he supported his workers’ decision. Voting was more important than fixing his roof.

The parliamentarian tells this story because it illustrates the importance of democracy to Afghans at the beginning of the democratic transition. As William Maley sets out in his chapter, “Building Legitimacy in Post-Taliban Afghanistan,” in this volume, over the previous three decades Afghanistan had suffered through a series of autocratic governments: the Zahir Shah monarchy, the Daoud autocracy, Babrak Karmal and Dr Najibullah’s communist vassal state of the Soviet Union, and the effective breakdown of the state during the Mujahideen period. Then the Taliban came to power, and made things much worse. By the end of the Taliban rule, Afghanistan was one of the poorest nations in the world, ranking near the bottom on almost all measures of human development.

Most Afghans saw democracy as a way to provide the stability and human rights that were lacking under these previous regimes. Indeed, the images of long lines at the voting booths and Afghans’ emotions on election day were endorsements of democracy that stood in sharp contrast to the electoral indifference in many established Western democracies.

Life and politics in Afghanistan have changed dramatically since the Taliban were forced from power in 2001 and the democratically elected Karzai government took office in 2004. There have been major improvements in living conditions, investments in national infrastructure, and new political rights for the populace. These developments are recognized by the public at large, although many severe social and economic problems remain.

Similarly, although international forces bolstering the Afghan National Army have provided a base of stability and security for the new government, political violence has grown in recent years, especially in the Eastern and South Western provinces, and in Kabul itself. The progress toward stability and democratization has been neither as rapid nor as extensive as many Afghans may have hoped. In 2008, Freedom House noted a negative trend in democratic progress in Afghanistan because of the worsening security conditions and the internal political struggles of the government.

This essay reports on how the Afghan public views democracy today, and how attitudes are evolving over time. It is based on the new national survey of the Afghan public conducted by The Asia Foundation in 2008. We first discuss Afghan support for democracy and the content of these opinions. The next section discusses the perceived relationship between democracy and Islam. The third section examines Afghan attitudes toward various elements of citizenship, such as feelings of personal efficacy and government responsiveness. The fourth section describes public satisfaction with the democratic process. We conclude by discussing the possible policy implications of these findings. This study gives voice to the Afghan public and assesses how they view the progress that has been made and the political challenges that remain.

Read more of “The Road to Democracy in Afghanistan” in State Building, Security, and Social Change in Afghanistan: Reflections on a Survey of the Afghan People.

Russell J. Dalton is Professor of Political Science and former director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine. Dalton’s research focuses on the role of the citizen in the democratic process. Below is an excerpt from his chapter, “The Road to Democracy in Afghanistan” in the recently released State Building, Security, and Social Change in Afghanistan: Reflections on a Survey of the Afghan People.


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