One of the perhaps lesser known facts about the [now fallen] Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is that the model of democracy promoted by the US there was quite unlike what they did in Iraq nearly simultaneously.

The UN-sponsored Bonn Conference of 2001 established the political foundations of the Afghan republic, reinstating the 1964 Constitution as the interim basic law and selecting Hamid Karzai as the interim political leader. That constitution was the product of Afghanistan’s experiment with constitutional democracy under King Muhammad Zahir Shah (1933–73). Although it had democratic elements, it was an authoritarian document designed merely to provide citizens some breathing room. [...] Some factions of the Northern Alliance (one of four Afghan groups to participate at Bonn), however, resisted and asked for a more decentralized system to accommodate Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic makeup. But the old unitary system was alluring to the Afghan leaders as well as to the international community.

In 2004, a Constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Council) promulgated a new basic law that departed from the 1964 Constitution most significantly in calling for a democratically elected president. The 2004 Constitution not only reinstated an old system of government, but it also resurrected the old administrative regulations governing public finance, the bureaucracy, the police, and other key elements of a functioning state. Many of these regulations had been strongly influenced by the Soviet Union, whose own attempts at institution-building in Afghanistan began in the 1950s and were not democratic. These top-down rules, which went mostly unnoticed by the international community, also severely limited the state’s ability to project power outside the capital.

[...] Consequently, parliament was much weaker than the president, who possessed vast constitutional powers, including the power to appoint ministers, Supreme Court justices, and all provincial- and district-level officials.

[...] In Herat Province in 2007, for example, I found a community that was electing its traditional leaders via secret ballot. This was ironic given that after 2001, citizens were never granted the opportunity to elect their formal local leaders, who were all appointed by Kabul.

[...] When pressed about the need for a weaker executive, such as a prime minister, or greater decentralization of authority, U.S. ambassador Robert Finn said that “Afghanistan needed a strong president given all the vectors of power.”

So, except for the national-level elections, of which only the presidential one was truly determinative, everything else more or less worked on a Soviet system, with a US rubber stamp, despite apparent pressures from below for a more decentralized model.

My question is whether this model of democracy that was tried in Afghanistan, with no local/provincial elections, just national ones and everything else top-down appointed by the president, work well anywhere, for a significant amount of time?

  • How would you like to define "worked well", here
    – Pete W
    Mar 20 at 1:59

2 Answers 2


Sounds a bit like China’s electoral system, Central officials are elected by the People's Congress, and officials at the following levels are appointed

Elections in China

National People's Congress The National People's Congress (NPC) has 2,977 members, elected for five year terms. Deputies are elected (over a three-month period) by the people's congresses of the provinces of China, autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the Central Government, as well as by electoral college in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, and by the armed forces which function as at-large electoral districts.[better source needed] Generally, seats are apportioned to each electoral district in proportion to their population, though the system for apportioning seats for Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the People's Liberation Army differ. No electoral district may be apportioned fewer than 15 seats in the NPC.

The NPC elects and appoints the following personnel:

President of the People's Republic of China Vice President of the People's Republic of China Chairperson of the Central Military Commission (PRC) Chairperson of the National Commission of Supervision President of the Supreme People's Court Prosecutor-General of the Supreme People's Procuratorate The NPC also appoints the premier of the State Council based on the president's nomination, other members of the State Council based on the premier's nomination, and other members of the Central Military Commission based on the CMC chair's nomination.

  • Eh, I suspect the model was closer to the other 'stans from the region than to China proper. Mar 20 at 2:16
  • The PRC actually dabbled with some local democracy more than it did with true elections for the central apparatus, including the president. So one might even claim it was the opposite of Afghanistan, in that regard. Mar 20 at 2:25
  • @ Dolphin 613 Motorboat Local officials in China are actually appointed, And elections to local people's congresses are usually considered to be designated candidates
    – Hanshan
    Mar 20 at 2:48
  • "The haixuan method of nominating candidates marked an important milestone in the development of Chinese villager committee elections, attracting the attention of both Chinese and foreign scholars in the mid1990s. The core breakthrough was that higher-level government offices or leaders no longer predetermine the candidates in an election. Instead, all villagers with the right to vote can freely nominate candidates." cartercenter.org/documents/1096.pdf What happened since then is another matter. Mar 20 at 9:08
  • The primacy of the CCP over the village was re-asserted via the yijiantiao eastasiaforum.org/2014/07/22/… Some thus conclude that those elections were ultimately used as a tool to strengthen autocracy in China nsd.pku.edu.cn/pub/chnsd/docs/20211129164648374204.pdf -- in a somewhat complicated fashion that capitalism was also thus used: improved local governance was used as stopgap measure to boost development etc. Mar 20 at 9:19

In certain respects a closer model (than China) is Malaysia. Local elections there were abolished circa 1971 (and in fact not held since 1964). And a 2021 parliamentary review declined to revive them. OTOH Malaysia is a federal system (of 13 states), and does have state-level [legislative] elections, so the analogy is rather imperfect.

More like an aside to the other anwer, there's also a paper that compares China's much more limited attempt at competitive village elections with that of other countries that (like also e.g Indonesia) did effectively, even if not formally, did away with those over time.

the trajectory of local elections under the Suharto regime in Indonesia (1965-1979) exhibits many parallels [with China]. During the first decade and a half of the regime, local elections played an important role in some regions of Indonesia such as Java. However, starting in 1979, when Indonesia experienced a large increase in state capacity because of the boom in oil revenues, the central regime began to curtail the powers of village governments. As in the Chinese case, elections were kept in place while the central government severely eroded the de facto powers of elected local leaders by simultaneously reducing their ability to raise revenues and substituting them with transfers decided by the central government (Antlov and Cederroth, 1994; Antlov, 2003). The pattern of election introduction followed by re-centralization is also present in other autocracies, such as in Vietnam.

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