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Which democratic model should we export?

By Peter Van Onselen and Wayne Errington - posted Monday, 14 February 2005

With the attention of the world firmly fixed on the fate of Iraqi elections, the people of another recently liberated country are also flirting with democracy.

Incumbent Afghani president Hamid Karzai, supported by the United States, won a strong presidential mandate on October 9 last year, the same day Australians went to the polls. His opponents would have preferred a parliamentary system were used so they could share power. A number of them put forward such a case at Afghanistan's loya jirga
(constitutional assembly) held in 2003/2004.

This type of argument has been played out endlessly over the past 30 years of democratic transitions.


Political science is a specialised field, but often the issues are clear. One thing we know for sure is that presidential systems rarely work. There is only one example of a successful presidential democracy the world over, the United States. 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. And don’t expect anything different in Afghanistan, even if democracy’s ultimate demise is artificially propped up for a few years to come. Justification of Bush’s political actions to date requires it.

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. And so it will be in Afghanistan. American colonies had long developed a tradition of independent courts and legislatures prior to 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. International concerns over Putin’s dominance grow by the day

Even in the US, the presidency was envisaged as a much less dominant office than that we see today. Americans should export the separation of powers instead of presidentialism: Building these competing institutions is a difficult but essential task for the consolidation of democracy.


The most successful American 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.

No doubt, advisors to the Afghan government are counting on the urbane, self-effacing Karzai to behave himself. And he probably will, but what about his successor? Karzai warned the loya jirga that a parliamentary system would “become bogged down in political quarrels”. One would hope so. That would be a tremendous alternative to the dispute resolution processes of Afghanistan’s recent past.

All executive governments complain about the hurdles they need to jump to enact legislation - the opposition, the courts, the people. Our own Paul Keating reflected on the “unrepresentative swill” that tends to populate democratic parliaments.

The most important thing for new democracies to learn is that elections are no panacea. Impatience with democratic methods invites frustrated voters to turn to a strong leader, but the record of such tyrants in solving their countries’ problems is pretty dismal.

The model for Afghanistan should be neither the American 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. Strong unifying leadership is the opposite of what is required; 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. But alas the presidential system is in place in Afghanistan, and its inevitable decline will now follow.

If only old Europe wasn’t so busy burning up political capital on the defunct area of international law. It might otherwise be able to offer some valuable guidance to Afghanistan.

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About the Authors

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

Dr Wayne Errington lectures in politics at the Australian National University. His book, co authored with Peter Van Onselen, John Winston Howard: The Biography (Melbourne University Press), is due for release later this year.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Peter Van Onselen
All articles by Wayne Errington
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