Afghanistan: low turnout

Before Sunday’s Afghanistan election, I suggested that the SNTV electoral system would undermine the ability of voters to use these elections as an instrument of democratic control:

even voters who brave threats of violence and want to help put an end to the grip warlords have on their country will find it extremely difficult to use these elections to further that purpose.

On Sunday, when the first reports of low turnuot hit the media, I made the following comment over at California Yankee:

I do not think this election could have been expected to have the kind of excitement–or turnout–that we saw either in the earlier presidential election, or in the Iraqi elections (outside of the areas where the boycott was effective).

There is no sense in which national power is at stake in these Afghan elections. The president was already elected and has a fixed term, and holds the far more important office under the Afghan constitution.

Because of the electoral system being used, there is no way that voters can select a party that promises to pursue a vision for the nation or even for an ethnic or religious group, as was the case with Iraq’s party-list proportional system.

Instead, voters are voting only for a single candidate among sometimes HUNDREDS running in their district, with no party affiliations listed (or sometimes known). The margin between the last few winners in a district and the first few losers will be tiny.

There really is no way voters can use a system like this to express any kind of mandate or will. All they can do is vote for some local notable. And other than the handful of “most notable” candidates in any province, most of those elected will have really tiny vote shares.

For these reasons, there just is bound to be much less perceived to be at stake than in the Afghan presidential election or the Iraqi assembly elections.

Now that turnout is reported to have been only around 50%, some reports are drawing the link, if not all that explicitly, between the electoral system and the turnout. For example, from Reuters:

Turnout was significantly lower than in last year’s presidential election won by U.S.-backed incumbent Hamid Karzai. Some analysts blamed the downturn on confusion caused by a vast field of 5,800 candidates, the presence of notorious warlords on the ballot and the slow pace of post-war reconstruction.


Afghanistan’s allies have hailed the vote, but analysts have said the new parliament is likely to be fragmented given that candidates ran as independents rather than on party tickets.

With its focus likely to be on local rather than national agendas, the assembly could prove more of a hindrance than a help to Karzai’s effort to strengthen central rule. [emphasis mine]

I would spin this a little differently, however. Because policy-making in Afghanistan’s presidential system is going to be a series of ongoing transactions between the president and this newly elected assembly, Karzai can strengthen central power at the same time as he deals with the fragmentation and local focus of this assembly. This is not the contradiction that it seems. The president and assembly are going to want different things: Karzai will want votes, and the assembly members will want payoffs for themselves or to impress the folks back home. This is not presidential democracy at its prettiest, but it is in a way an archetypical separation-of-powers system.

Being so fragmented, the assembly indeed does not have a pro-Karzai majority. Neither does it have an anti-Karzai majority. Karzai should have no trouble buying support by proving patronage.

Whether that is a model that undermines democracy or is just what is needed given the conditions Afghanistan faces would be an interesting debate. Whether this model is better than the Iraqi one would also be an interesting debate, as would be the question of whether this Afghan model would have been more or less appropariate for Iraq than the system chosen there. Interesting debates, indeed. Perhaps also the basis of some interesting essay questions for certain students later this quarter!

0 thoughts on “Afghanistan: low turnout

  1. The CIA pacification program funded through A.I.D. mad ALOT of monay for orgs that work in Afghanistan.

    Karzai may have trouble them giving up all the A.I.D. funding. Maybe start some in county programs and grab the funding while there is some left.

  2. “[…] Political scientists really don’t know much. In fact, about the only thing we know for sure is that presidential systems don’t work. There is only one example of a successful presidential democracy – the US. Unfortunately, the US happens to be in a unique position to impose or encourage the replication of its political institutions in other nations.

    Where the US model has been exported, democracy has failed at its first try. Every time. In Latin America, which was strongly influenced by the American Revolution, presidential systems degenerated into military dictatorships. In our own region, dictatorial presidents took power away from legislatures in South Korea and the Philippines.

    The problem is that the essence of American democracy lies not in its presidential executive, but in the separation of powers. It has proved very easy to transplant the former institution but nigh on impossible to develop the latter quickly enough to prevent the president from dominating the other branches of government. American colonies had long developed a tradition of independent courts and legislatures before independence.

    Charismatic or ruthless leaders inevitably use the personal nature of the presidential office to argue the case for strong leadership to overcome the problems that face newly minted democracies. In Russia and Belarus, strong presidents have sidelined weak legislatures by claiming that party politics is corrupt, divisive and ineffectual. […]

    The most successful US attempts to bring about democratic regimes have been in Germany and Japan – both parliamentary systems. The reason that British colonies have been so successful in building democracies after independence is the long tradition of independent courts and vigorous parliaments. But, as Robert Mugabe has shown, determined leaders can overpower these institutions. […]

    The model for Afghanistan should be neither the US system nor the British parliamentary type, with its myth of responsible government. Instead, the power-sharing parliamentary systems of “old Europe” provide the best model for new democracies. Fractured countries like Afghanistan and Iraq need to build national consensus through sharing power in cabinets and assemblies. The best way to bring this about is through a system of proportional representation. […]

    Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington, “A democracy that smells like a dictatorship: Afghanistan is favouring a system that has failed everywhere else,” Sydney Morning Herald (23 December 2003)

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