The South Asia Channel

A grassroots democracy for Afghanistan

During the 2009 presidential elections, when I was serving as a senior aide to candidate Dr. Ashraf Ghani, I used to share a taxi with other travellers going from Kabul to my home town of Jalalabad every weekend. Thousands take that road each day, many either going to or returning from Pakistan – mainly for ...


During the 2009 presidential elections, when I was serving as a senior aide to candidate Dr. Ashraf Ghani, I used to share a taxi with other travellers going from Kabul to my home town of Jalalabad every weekend. Thousands take that road each day, many either going to or returning from Pakistan – mainly for healthcare or trade. With so many Afghans taking this road, it was an opportunity to gauge public opinion on the elections. I would introduce myself as a university student to get uncensored thoughts from fellow passengers about the topic. I didn’t always have to bring it up–as soon as the journey commenced, an analysis of the presidential elections would inevitably begin.

Their opinions would almost always be that the so-called democracy in Afghanistan is a Western-imported and -imposed form of government. The international community footed the bill for the 2009 presidential elections, worth hundreds of millions of dollars; however, according to the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (IEC), only about one-third of registered voters visited the polls, approximately 5 million of the roughly 15 million Afghans who registered. Common knowledge is that wide-spread vote rigging, ballot box stuffing, and various frauds and corruption discounted the legitimacy of elections, as the counting dragged on for months in uncertainty.

After the disaster of the elections-and the candidate I supported having lost- I began reflecting on the electoral system as it exists in the country today. The general public, especially those in the rural and insecure areas, has been alienated by the central government through this counterproductive system. The 2010 parliamentary elections exposed more flaws in the current system, when 2,577 candidates vied for 249 seats. News reports and independent studies documenting the elections evoked the same nightmares of fraud, corruption, low turnout, and illegitimacy from the 2009 presidential elections. Too many of those who made it to the parliament are not truly representative of their constituencies, but instead are often warlords and regional strongmen whose power has been bolstered through their strong political ties and bribery.

For the past 10 years, Afghanistan has been pushed to emulate a Western model without room for its democracy to sprout from Afghan customs and cultures. It’s not democracy itself that dismays in this country; rather, it is the way it has been installed and implemented that many find so frustrating. States such as Turkey and Indonesia show that Islamic nations can construct their own forms of democracies, but it must be custom-tailored to make sure democracy can function in each local context.

As reflected in the voices of those I shared taxis with, and others with whom I spoke, Afghans have become cynical about their government. Today, many take for granted the corruption and inevitable failure of elections to secure a representative central government.

Despite this, Afghans pride themselves on their history of a kind of democracy–decisions on both local and national levels have been made by consultative councils of tribal elders (shuras or jirgas) and grand councils (loya jirga), respectively, throughout Afghanistan’s history. An alternative, sustainable, and effective approach to the current failed system must stem from traditional Afghan democracy, such as the malik system.

Afghan societies function internally. Local governance is no exception to this societal structure, with communities traditionally turning to local non-government entities, such as shuras, composed of village leaders (maliks), and religious leaders (mullahs), for legal matters, conflict resolution, and issues concerning social and economic needs. This is the basic Afghan localized system of governance–a tribal or village elder, or malik, is elected or, rather, selected, through consultation and mutual agreement in a community jirga or shura.  The malik then represents the village’s needs and interests to external parties and deals with any internal matters. Very rarely do Afghan citizens living outside of urban centers feel inclined to contact local government officials or their respective members of parliament for issues or regarding services that should theoretically be provisioned by the central government under the current system.

A 2010 national survey conducted by the Asia Foundation shows that when faced with social or economic problems, or in need of dispute resolution or services, the vast majority of respondents approach a non-government entity, either the village shura or jirga, or the malik or mullah. The number one reason given by respondents for seeking out local governance entities was simply their faith that local shuras would be honest and fair.  In fact, the majority of respondents said they did not believe that the parliament was working in the interest of ordinary Afghan civilians, but rather, in individual political interests.

This continued reliance on informal justice systems, mixed with knowledge of the history of Afghan governance, suggests that rural-dwelling Afghans (about 75 % of the population) don’t benefit or find much use for parliament, or its electoral processes, as it exists in Afghanistan today.

This customary system of local governance is how Afghans have governed themselves for centuries, even after formal centralization in the 1880’s when Amir Abdur Rahman unified the state, albeit by force, and after 1964, when King Zahir Shah established a parliament, albeit one with restricted power. The founder of modern Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Abdali, was elected to be king by a loya jirga of tribal elders. While such arrangements have been sustained at the local level, there has been a consistent failure to duplicate such effectiveness, efficiency and trust in popular representation at the central level, particularly in today’s Afghan parliament.

An alternative approach would be to extend the traditional malik system to the central level. It would establish linkages from the grassroots to the central government, and be sustainable and affordable. Under an indigenous Afghan system of democracy, the idea would be to limit the current election system to the cities and instead adapt the malik system into a formalized process of democratic governance that would reach its way to the central level, resulting in actual popular representation.

In this system, each village would elect or select their malik after convening a jirga, as is traditionally done. The elected village maliks would collectively form a district council. Eligibility requirements could be put in place to ensure that those elected to the village and district shuras are full-time residents of their constituencies, in order to edge out warlords and commanders who are often granted parliament or ministerial positions through political or financial coercion. The district council would then convene to elect one district representative–a malik-ul-maluk (chief of the chieftains) from amongst themselves to represent the district as a whole at the central level within the parliament. Provincial jirgas could be established and convened regularly, along with a term set to allow for routine turnover. In this way, members of parliament would be directly connected to the localities they represent, serving as a direct line for voicing the needs and interests of their constituencies. To avoid a swollen bureaucracy, some districts could be coupled together based on their demographics to meet the target of 249 seats, or elected maliks could also be placed in the Provincial Councils.

Afghanistan is not ready for a centralized Western-style democracy, perhaps because it’s just not suited for the system created after the fall of the Taliban. Few Afghans have confidence in their elected representatives, and even fewer have any use for them; thus, Afghans take little to no interest in voting, particularly with the levels of corruption that strips elected officials of their true representative function. However, a certain style of democracy is woven into the fabric of Afghan society, both through religion and culture-it must be allowed to crawl first before it can be fast-tracked. Building on the existing democratic structures in the country, such as the malik-ul-maluk system, from the local to the national level, could produce the best form of representative parliament, one that comes from amongst the people, is affordable and sustainable for the country, and one that would ensure effective, grass-roots outreach for the government.

Hamdullah Mohib served as a senior aide to Dr. Ashraf Ghani during the 2009 Afghan presidential elections, and is now studying for his PhD at Brunel University.

Contributions to this article were made by Lael A. Mohib, who works in community and rural development in Kabul, and has a Masters in International Relations with a focus on Afghanistan from Boston University.

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