Abdullah Elham


Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for July 20, 2019. If held accordingly, it will be the most challenging election given the critical political context. Considering the fragile culture of elections in the country and the widespread concerns stemming from compromises on the laws and regulations, the populist nature of the competitions signals further challenges. Populism overshadows elections, even in mature democracies, and can negatively affect the Afghan election more than other countries.  This paper tries to study the nature of populism in Afghanistan and discuss the ways it overshadows the electoral policies and its implications for the upcoming presidential election.



The 2004 constitution bestowed a democratic system of governance to the war-torn country. However, the promised public administration the country needs is still to be institutionalized. The country has experienced multiple rounds of elections during the past 17 years albeit riddled with complex problems and claims of widespread fraud. The elections also failed to produce satisfactory results. Major failures were the result of flaws in the electoral policies, administrative deficiencies, weak governance and a democracy influenced by widespread corruption and powerful warlords. Meanwhile, populism, enrooted in Afghan politics, has affected different aspects of governance in Afghanistan. This does not only harm the public trust in democracy and elections, but it also widens the gap between the already fractured Afghan polity and society.



Théo Fournier of the European University Institute in his research “from rhetoric to action – a constitutional analysis of populism” argues that populism evolves like a parasite in democracies. In his view, the very host democracy gives populism inspiration to build up populist rhetoric. The rhetoric usually promotes a fictional majority that most of the time propagates that democracy tyrannizes minorities. More importantly, the researcher concludes that this rhetoric – strongly anchored in the political scheme – aims to destroy democracies from within.

Most of the time politicians claim to be serving the peoples’ interests rather than the interests of a specific group, and this is most of the time typical appeal. Moreover, they are sometimes falsely denounced by the term populist. Nevertheless, there are politicians who use the very typical appeal of serving the people’s interests but they act like opportunists to secure their own interests. Researchers believe that “populism’s central and permanent narrative is the juxtaposition of a (corrupt) »political class, « elite », « or » establishment, «and » the people, « as whose sole authentic voice the populist party bills itself. Populists thus favor instruments of direct democracy”. Dictionaries define this term as “a political doctrine or philosophy that proposes that the rights and powers of ordinary people are exploited by privileged elite, and supports their struggle to overcome this”.


Populism in Afghanistan

Historically, Afghan polity witnessed populist elites in different eras. Populist rhetoric enabled a commoner to depose King Amanullah Khan, the most modernist king in Afghanistan’s history and to stop the country’s journey towards modernization. Populist rhetoric later worked for other rulers like Daud Khan, the first president of the country to topple king Zahir Shah, hinder the stabilized journey of the country and create enemies on each front for the country. Najibullah, the President of Afghanistan from 1987 until 1992, tried to use populist rhetoric in order to survive the Jihadi revolution. However, he failed miserably in his attempt, resulting in the total collapse of all state institutions, […] after the Soviet withdrawal( Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012). His opponents like the prominent Jihadi fighter Ahmadshah Massud and Abdul Ali Mazari, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and others also attempted the same. Their photos are still affixed to walls and cars in the country. The former president Hamid Karzai and politicians of his government, mostly his ‘warlord’ aids, were in favor of populism and they still try to use it to protect themselves from changes and reforms.

During the past one and a half decades of governance under the new constitution, different groups manipulated the core of the system. Warlords, land grabbers, corrupt officials, and even criminal mafias appreciated the opportunity to strengthen their presence and overshadow the system. These groups continually anchored anti-government rhetoric to pretend to be the majority and propagated that the central government is discriminating certain groups. By minorities, they mean the groups that are protected by these corrupt and criminal networks.

Ethnicity remains a major rhetoric for these groups. They protect themselves in their ethnic and sectarian sanctuaries.  In the recent years, when the government pressurized the illicit networks and attempted to seriously fight the criminal networks, the alarm of revolts against the state and the rhetoric of ethnicity were notable and manipulated the scene setting in favor of the certain groups.

Some researchers in Afghanistan and the region link populism with demagoguery and demagogues. An Afghan analyst even coined the term ‘Jihadi type of populism’. He thinks “with such demagogy, which aims to mislead supporters’ thought, politicians and tribal officials seek to seduce public opinion and give false personality to the group under their dominance”. Analysts believe that the certain nature of populism in Afghanistan leads to awakening populist feelings and false heroism in society that weakens social order and degrades the prestige of public institutions.


Election and populism in Afghanistan

For new democracies like in Afghanistan, elections are the key to open the door on representation. As part of efforts towards the transition to democracy, elections for the post-conflict and fragile state were largely supported by the international community. As a result, the system turned to be a post-conflict state where democracy – as in other failed democratic states – is under constant threat and pressure. Researchers believe such states face this situation as they “didn’t generate a foundation for strong government and cohesive political parties that are crucial for the future stability of the country”. Afghan democracy started to struggle for enrooting in the post-war and tense context in the absence of formally recognized prominent political parties. The power remained concentrated in the hands of elites, most of who were nurtured by the aids from foreign countries and they were gradually sunk into widespread corruption.

These politicians now make the major share of the Afghan polity. Anchoring populist rhetoric, they protect their interests in ethnic and sectarian sanctuaries. They invest more in elections to occupy public offices in order to keep the system unable to degrade warlords and their networks. In each election, the country goes to the verge of ethnic fraction because of these populist elites anchor ethnic and sectarian rhetoric to secure votes from the respective communities. Recently, the central government pressured some of the criminal networks for a short time and these politicians propagated their populist rhetoric more than any other time. It seems they will continue and will try to get most out of this for the upcoming elections.

Mass communication tools and the wide range of political and financial support available from domestic and international sources enable the populist politicians to continually maneuver against the central government and manipulate the majority and create a unitary and uncompromising majority. This majority create deadlocks as it did in 2014 presidential elections, as both parties claim victory in the elections and declared themselves as the representatives of the nation. They were continually threatening to use the so-called ‘power of people’ to seize power. For the upcoming presidential election, the same fear exists.

On the other hand, technocrats and west-educated politicians also invest in populist rhetoric in order to win the public’s hearts and also be able to fight back the traditional populist politicians. They make false commitments and bragging about their achievements. Their rhetoric also harms the trust of people in the government and public offices. As the elections getting closer these politicians use every opportunity to anchor their populist rhetoric.

As a result, populism adopted by the majority of political elite can make things worse for Afghanistan more than any other time in the history, especially as the presidential election approaches and the fear of widening fractions exist in every aspect of the Afghan polity and society.


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