The South Asia Channel

Will AfPak Democracy Survive?

 In 1997, Robert Kaplan pulled the tablecloth out from under democracy with his article in the Atlantic, "Was a Democracy Just a Moment." Kaplan predicted that like Christianity, democracy would not create a more moral world, or a more peaceful world, but rather a more complex world. Right now, Pakistan and Afghanistan, two young democracies, ...

A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images

 In 1997, Robert Kaplan pulled the tablecloth out from under democracy with his article in the Atlantic, "Was a Democracy Just a Moment." Kaplan predicted that like Christianity, democracy would not create a more moral world, or a more peaceful world, but rather a more complex world. Right now, Pakistan and Afghanistan, two young democracies, are finding this out the hard way.

 In Pakistan, protestors angered by the inability of Nawaz Sharif to economic, infrastructural, and security issues, "storm[ed] government buildings by the thousands, armed with batons and clubs [and] their faces covered", and demanded that the democratically elected Prime Minister step down. Sharif was forced to partially abdicate Pakistan’s all-important foreign policy and defense portfolios to the military to secure their support — reversing an important step towards a more democratic, and less bellicose Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, popular discontent against the political class is also high after the second round of Afghan presidential elections was marred by embarrassing levels of fraud After an auditing process that allegedly only examined 1 percent of ballot boxes, Ashraf Ghani was declared president, and a power-sharing agreement made Abdullah Abdullah the newly created "chief executive officer." Afghans who braved the Taliban to cast their vote feel that this process that this process "has been a slap in the face for democracy in Afghanistan," as their supposedly democratic transition "actually avoided democratic means to determine who won the election." Resolving an electoral crisis by relying on the very politicians and warlords who compromised the integrity of the electoral process also constitutes a democratic reversal.

 As it turns out, political scientists have known that young democracies are prone to higher levels of political violence and other forms of conflict for a while. In a landmark 2001 paper, Demet Mousseau found an "inverse U" shaped relationship between democratization and violence in ethnically heterogeneous societies. As a country becomes more democratic (or moves across the x-axis), the level of political violence increases (moving up the y-axis) because the state’s capacity to violently contain conflict decreases. Tragically, actions undertaken by key actors in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and abroad are militating to keep Afghanistan and Pakistan in that precarious position.

To understand why, one must look at why elections are overrated in immature, ethnically heterogeneous democracies. Ethnic conflict — as well as other forms of identity conflict — are driven by intense "collective fears for the future," States where patronage politics and nepotism runs rampant are especially vulnerable, as these benefits tend to flow towards the ethnic and religious groups associated with the party in power — unfortunately, these conditions adhere in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Elections in weak states provide a fertile breeding ground for these elements to coalesce. They are inherently zero-sum games that exacerbate existing collective fears about group survival. Take Afghanistan, where ethnic tensions flared during the election, as the contest was framed as a competition between the interests of the dominant Pashtun majority (represented by Ashraf Ghani), and other minority groups (represented by Abdullah Abdullah). Analysts feared that the country could devolve into ethnic warfare because of the uncertainty and anxiety produced by Abdullah and Ghani’s apparent inability to resolve their dispute.

So, knowing all of this, what does every relevant party do? Increase the salience — and concomitantly, the perceived stakes — of elections. In Pakistan, Khan increases the stakes of Pakistani elections and threatens to remove a democratically elected president, directing attention away from the incompetent bureaucrats and institutions responsible for the power and water shortages that infuriate so many Pakistanis. Khan’s distraction also provides the military with an opportunity to reproduce its role as the "final arbiter" in Pakistani politics by quelling the protests.

In Afghanistan, the United States is largely to blame for making its aid to the Afghan government contingent on "free and fair elections." Furthermore, by dispatching U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to help broker an agreement between Ghani and Abdullah at the first sign of trouble in July, America sent the message that: one the US was so afraid of this dispute laying unresolved that they had to send one of their most important asset’s to solve it; and two America, , America, rather than Ghani, Abdullah, or the Afghan people, was responsible for the results. The Taliban, who have painted the elections as unrepresentative of Afghan interests, are undoubtedly ecstatic.

The Afghan government also did their part by crafting a deal which consolidates power in the executive branch by empowering the President and CEO to appoint officials without any meaningful legislative oversight. This is worrying as research by Alex Hadenius, professor of political science at Uppsala University in Sweden, finds that "the accumulation of too much power in the hands of the executive seems to be a persistent threat to democratic stability," because a concentration of power there increases the collective fear for the future held by different ethnic and religious groups by increasing the stakes of elections, and making them appear even more zero-sum. 

However, while elections may be problematic, doing away with them might engender a bit of disapproval. A more feasible strategy would be reducing the stakes of elections. It may appear counter-intuitive, but if the potential costs of "your" candidate winning are decreased, and the potential benefits of "their" candidate losing are also decreased, the incentives for ballot box stuffing, voter intimidation, and other forms of political violence which undermine state institutions and democratic viability would also be decreased. This could be accomplished through electoral reforms that reduce the power held by members of the executive branch.

It would also be wise for the involved parties to consider reforms that produce a status quo which promotes feelings of inclusion amongst all ethnic groups, and protects their fundamental, existential interests. This hypothesis finds support in "dominant party theory," which points to the ability of democracies like India to sustain themselves in ethnically heterogeneous contexts. This theory posits that in a "dominant party system," a dominant party rules without serious fear of being displaced by gadfly "parties of pressure" which represent regional interests. However, the dominant party must accommodate the most legitimate and pressing needs of the satellite parties, otherwise the satellite parties could drum up enough support to remove the dominant party. Thus, a status quo is created where collective fears for the future are dampened, because groups know that any issue with existential import must be competently and fairly managed by the dominant party if it wants to stay in power. The United States — and other relevant actors — should put their time and energy into reforms that protect minority rights and restructure legislatures to construct a more durable, secure status quo, rather than fanning the flames of ethnic discontent by fetishizing elections.

Robert Kaplan may have been wrong: The arc of the political world is long, but it appears to bend towards further democratization. However, reducing the emphasis placed on elections, the "jewel in the crown" of democracy, would prove beneficial for nascent democracies like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Jordan Olmstead is a freelance writer and a researcher at the Southwest Institute for the Study of Middle Eastern Conflict. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter: @jcolmstead1.

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