Monday, July 14, 2014

Fearing Parliamentarism? Afghanistan's Potential Institutional Reform

The news today out of Afghanistan is that the competitors for the presidency have agreed to move the political system towards a parliamentary system.  That the loser becomes chief executive and then in a couple of years, they will modify the constitution to create a more semi-presidential system with a Prime Minister serving as head of the government.

This essentially does one of Afghanistan's original sins: centralizing too much power within the Presidency.  The story suggests that the Americans feared the instability of a parliamentary system.  I guess that is what happens when Americans help draw up the constitution, as American politicians have no experience with parliamentarism.  I am not sure what kind of instability they are thinking of, as I don't think parliamentary systems are associated with coups.  And I am sure that parliamentarism is no worse than presidentialism when it comes to ethnic strife.

Presidentialism vs. parliamentarism has been much debated by scholars of comparative politics.  There are many flaws in presidentialism, but the key is that putting all the power in one person's hands makes it very hard to share, and means that elections are winner take all.  Parliamentary systems can be like that or not, depending on the electoral system.  Proportional representation turns out to be the key (at least for managing ethnic conflict), as it means that minorities can gain meaningful access to the political system.  And if the population is diverse enough, to govern, one needs to form coalitions.  This might be the "instability" that is spoken of in the NYT article, but there are plenty of stable parliamentary systems.

So, as one twitter friend put it,
Of course, the shift from presidentialism to something else (again, my suspicion is that it will be a mix or semi-presidentialism especially as whoever is president is not going to give away all of his power) misses a key flaw in the system--presidential and parliamentary systems can be too centralized.  What is needed is some kind of federalism.  People fear that federalism leads to secession, but that depends on how the federalism is designed and on other stuff as well.  But having the folks in Kabul call the shots all the way down to choosing who runs each district has clearly been problematic. Federalism can be complicated less because of the secession problem and more because the local majorities may abuse the local minorities.

Anyhow, re-thinking the institutions that govern the Afghan political system might actually lead to actual governing of Afghanistan....  That is, the reach of the government has been limited by the war.  Developing a better design might help reduce the support for violence.  Of course, it might also be a bit late in the game.

A key irony here is that the area experts and the comparativists probably see eye to eye on this: the institutions set up by the outsiders were poorly designed--they did not fit the Afghan context (too centralized) and they did not reflect the lessons of extensive scholarship on post-conflict (semi) democratic institution building.  South Africa, for all of its current challenges, is far better off having listened to the contending experts on how best to design democratic institutions.  Not sure why these folks were ignored in 2002-2004.

As always, it goes back to the noted political philosopher Jeff Spicoli:
"if we don't get some cool rules ourselves, pronto, we'll just be bogus, too."

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