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Thinking and Acting Locally: Institutional Flaws of the Electoral System in Afghanistan

Much of the discussions surrounding the Afghan legislative elections on September 18, 2005 has centered on poll-related violence, logistical obstacles, and potential frauds.  Lost in the discussions is a problem of much greater significance to the future of Afghanistan. The institutional arrangements of Afghanistan’s political frameworks are incapable of solving its most debilitating problem — the lack of a unified national identity — and may actually aggravate it.1 The final election results — to be announced by the end of October — will likely only contribute to the crisis of identity.

A participant in the Thirty Years’ War would have been at home in Afghanistan. Afghans’ loyalties tend to be based more on religious, linguistic, ethnic, or tribal affiliation than on an idea of the Afghan nation. Approximately 42% of the country is Pashtun; 27% is Tajik; Uzbeks and Hazaras each claim 9%; and a variety of other ethnic groupings account for about 13% of the population.  Dari and Pashtu are the two official languages with one or the other being spoken by almost 85% of the population.  Over thirty other languages abound in Afghanistan.2

More than two decades of war have turned what could have been beneficial cultural diversities into sources of internecine conflicts.  Decentralization may have given mujahedeen an advantage in their CIA-funded guerrilla resistance to the Soviet Union, but it also gave birth to military demagogues pursuing a policy of localism gone wild.  A 2004 United Nations report noted that local commanders, often referred to as warlords, have the power to confiscate land from farmers, maintain private prisons, and harass individuals who defy them. In the province of Faryab, two local judges were detained in a warlord’s private prison for “insulting” him. When the governor of the province, appointed by Hamid Karzai, demanded their release, the warlord simply refused the order.3  This is not an isolated incident.  The Economist has reported that a prominent Uzbek warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, even controls a private “fief” in Northern Afghanistan. Illustrating the power that such warlords maintain in their local provinces, the article reported that, at a rally for his failed presidential campaign, “the general begged foreign donors to bring water to his desert land, and then welcomed journalists to a palace boasting six swimming pools.”4

Fierce localism has already manifested in electoral politics. President Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, received roughly 90% of the vote in Pashtun areas during the 2004 presidential election. In comparison, Karzai only received 0.8% of the vote in Panjshir, a Tajik/Northern Alliance stronghold. “Unfortunately, the country is divided, and this is the legacy of all those years of fighting,” said Chafiqa Habibi, an ally of Dostum. “Four out of five votes were probably cast along ethnic lines.”5  The electoral formula actually encourages this kind of behavior.  The final results will probably be more of a census than an election again.

An electoral system that encourages national unity could have counteracted the centrifugal force of localism in Afghanistan.  An arrangement similar to Germany‘s electoral system, where the makeup of the Bundestag is determined by nationally-based proportional representation, would make coalitions and cooperation across tribal lines necessary and could force political players to scrap ethnic-oriented positions and support policies that appeal to a broad-based national constituency. Instead of mandating such a system, the Afghan Constitution provides for an electoral process based on American-style regional representation.

According to Afghanistan’s Constitution, over 220 seats will be up for grabs in the National Assembly’s lower house, known as the Wolesi Jirga.  All of these seats are elected regionally and are based on provincial populations.  The upper house, known as the Meshrano Jirga, is selected in a process that will only magnify localism even further.  One-third of its seats are appointed by provincial councils, another third are appointed by district councils, and the final third are appointed by the President.  Therefore, two-thirds of the upper house are appointed by provincial interests, and the third that, in theory, represent a national constituency are unelected.6

In other words, under the current institutional arrangements, candidates for the National Assembly have no incentive to form national agendas that appeal to anyone outside of their fiefdom. A politician would only need support within his (or her7) own province and will likewise only advocate policies of local interest.8  Ethnic localism will thus only be entrenched and warlordism will persist unabated.9

History also raises a flag of caution for multi-ethnic states and stresses the need for adequate political institutions that promote national unity over localism.  Bogdan Denitch notes mistakes made in Yugoslavia during the 1970s. New institutional arrangements fostered localism by decentralizing the League of Yugoslav Communists (LCY) into their respective republics so as to avert unified opposition to Marshall Tito’s rule.  Denitch states:

For decades the only debate the LCY was permitted to engage in was that over different ways of representing local interests. To express programmatic political differences about the appropriate road for Yugoslavia as a whole would have been to act as a faction within the LCY as a whole. The prohibition of tendencies or factions within the LCY had guaranteed the development of a localist and nationalist10 discourse in both Communist and post-Communist Yugoslav politics. Yugoslav federalism encouraged the local leagues to defend their own regional interests as a way of broadening their political support, and that guaranteed the development of league-sanctioned localism.11

The end result of these practices in Yugoslavia is sadly too well known. While Afghanistan might not be heading down the road to such an apocalyptic future, the Yugoslav lesson reminds us of the power of political institutions to shape the political landscape, which in turn influences paths that political actors take.  Just as Yugoslav federalism forced local LCYs to garner support from local sources, Afghanistan’s political arrangements also provide incentives for similar behavior.  Regional representation will likely prove to be grossly ineffective at removing barriers currently impeding Afghanistan from developing a unified national identity and a government concerned with promoting a common good that crosses ethnic and linguistic barriers. It is unlikely that bickering localists concerned only with their own ethnic interests will be able to overcome years of theocratic rule and create a progressive society that embraces modernity.

The institutional flaws in the Afghan electoral sysstem raise a number of pertinent questions that demands further investigation.  Does the existing system express the desire of the George W. Bush administration or was it the only compromise possible?  If the former, why does the administration desire such a flawed system? Who will gain from it?  Do the weaknesses that the system perpetuates make it easier for foreign interests to have their way in Afghanistan? Regardless of the answers to these questions, it is direly important that the Afghan people themselves demand greater control over the political institutions that are being created over their heads.

1 Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass C. North has written extensively about the role that political institutions play in shaping economic and societal performance.  He believes that political institutions, such as legislative election formulas, affect societies by providing relative incentives and disincentives for varying behaviors. See Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance: Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

2 “Afghanistan,” CIA World Fact Book.

3 United Press International, “Report Says Warlords Still Call Shots,” 23 December 2004.

4 “Voting in a Warlord Country,” The Economist, 7 October 2004.

5 Stephen Graham. “Afghan Vote Exposes Ethnic Divides,” Associated Press, 20 October 2004.

6 The Constitution of Afghanistan, Chapter Five, Articles Eighty-three and Eighty-four.

7 The use of “her” in this case is very optimistic. While 50% of the President’s appointments to the upper house must be female, the electoral prospects for women in Afghanistan remain grim.

8 Or in the case of warlords such as Dostum, the local population will be harassed into supporting preferential candidates. Elections based on national representation would likely decrease the ability of local warlords to carry out such behavior on the national level.

9 Political entities such as the National Understanding Front (NUF), who are positioning themselves as opposition to Karzai, have been formed and profess to support cross-ethnic policies.  NUF, however, appears to be composed of mostly non-Pashtun political players.  It is still too early to tell what impact they will have, but early indications do not appear optimistic, especially considering that Afghanistan’s political institutions, as discussed in this article, discourage cross-ethnic cooperation.

10 “Nationalist,” in this case, is referring to nationalism in support of separate republics such as Croatia, and not the unified nation of Yugoslavia.

11 Bogdan Denitch, Ethnic Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia (Minnesota: the University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 54.


Kevin Watkins is a masters candidate in the Public Policy and International Affairs program at William Paterson University.


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