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.

Related Publications

South Sudan’s Pitfalls of Power Sharing

South Sudan’s Pitfalls of Power Sharing

Friday, February 16, 2018

By: USIP Staff; Susan Stigant; Aly Verjee

This week, a new proposal for a power sharing government was tabled at the ongoing Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) peace talks for South Sudan. An earlier, 2015 peace deal also contained a formula for power sharing; that arrangement failed and the civil war re-ignited a year later. Power sharing arrangements are appropriate if certain conditions are met, but not enough has been done to ensure the latest proposal will overcome the obstacles present in South Sudan, according to Susan Stigant, USIP’s director for Africa programs and Aly Verjee, a visiting expert at USIP and a former senior advisor to the IGAD mediation, who comment on the proposal and suggest how it could be improved.

Democracy & Governance; Fragility and Resilience; Global Policy

Redefining Masculinity in Afghanistan

Redefining Masculinity in Afghanistan

Thursday, February 15, 2018

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Rafiullah Stanikzai

Following more than three decades of political instability, violent conflicts, and foreign invasions, Afghanistan is home to nearly two generations that have grown up knowing only conflict and war. As a result, violent and aggressive behavior—particularly from young men—has become an accepted norm of...


View All Publications