Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election did lead to its first peaceful transfer of power. The process, however, was scarcely democratic. This report explores the election and its internationally mediated unity government outcome. Elections—when they can even be held in fragile and conflict-affected situations—tend to be more destabilizing than stabilizing. The overall lesson, as this report makes clear, points to certain critical needs for such countries: a better understanding of inherent issues, modest expectations, a long-term view, and viable political institutions. 


  • The 2014 Afghan presidential election was followed by a peaceful transfer of power to a new president and administration, but not through a democratic electoral process.
  • Under the threat of postelection violence, nontransparent, internationally mediated bargaining between the top two vote-getters led to division of ministerial nominations between them and the creation of a new, high-level government position for the runner-up.
  • Contemporary research suggests that in low-income countries characterized by limited access in economic and political spheres, armed elites’ bargaining and agreement over the division of resources helps minimize violence and maintains a modicum of political stability, but this is inconsistent with democratic processes.
  • The international intervention (led by the United States and with heavy UN involvement) to mediate the postelection negotiations distorted Afghanistan’s “political marketplace” and left problems in its wake, inhibiting political development and most likely undermining the legitimacy of and popular participation in future Afghan elections.
  • In fragile limited access societies, attention should be focused more on developing viable political institutions, without which elections cannot achieve the results expected of them, and less on each individual election and its mechanics.
  • Finally, elections in these situations should not be made even more difficult and risky by combining them with other major turning points (such as withdrawal of international troops), nor should holding elections be taken either as a marker for completion of an international intervention or as a signal that it is time to drastically reduce financial or other support.

About the Report

This report explores the process and outcome of Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election from a limited access social order perspective. Under the threat of postelection violence, nontransparent, internationally mediated bargaining led to a negotiated result that accommodated the runner-up in the initial vote count, by creating a new high-level government position for him and giving him a share in ministerial nominations. The report points out the contradictions, clashes, and perverse effects that can arise when democratic institutional forms such as elections are imposed on a limited access order, especially a fragile one like Afghanistan.

About the Author

William A. Byrd is a senior expert on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Comments from Andrew Wilder, Scott Smith, Colin Cookman, and two peer reviewers are gratefully acknowledged. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which does not take policy positions.

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